Diplomats guarded over Donald Trump's inaugural UN visit

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01:29 mins.
18.09.2017

Trump calls for UN reforms

Donald Trump's maiden speech at the United Nations is being viewed with cautious optimism by diplomats in New York. The US president has been critical of the organization, but his presence counts for something.

Even under ordinary circumstances, it can be challenging to get diplomats and officials to openly speak their mind about the occupant of the White House and shaper of American foreign policy.

But the US president is a man who has called the United Nations "a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time" and demanded drastic cuts to Washington's contribution to the organization's budget. In the era of Donald Trump, these are no ordinary circumstances.

That's why it was little surprise that of the half-dozen officials from various UN member countries who were approached for this article in New York, none was prepared to talk on the record about the expectations for Trump's maiden speech at the General Assembly on Tuesday.

Read more: Seven anecdotes from UN General Assembly debates

But even without attribution, diplomats from around the world remained guarded and hesitant to expound on what they think he will say in his first address to the organization.

Now live
02:59 mins.
DW News | 18.09.2017

Alexandra von Nahmen from New York

General reluctance

To be fair, what can be described as a general reluctance to preview Trump's visit is understandable to a certain degree since the president is widely seen as unpredictable — particularly when it comes to last minute changes to the content of the speeches he gives.  

The key sentiment shared by officials from North America, Europe, Africa and Asia was relief that Trump was actually coming to the UN and taking part in the General Assembly.

This may seem a low bar to set, but against the backdrop of Trump's anti-UN rhetoric and his espoused policy of "America First," his visit to the world's most visible multilateral organization could indeed be interpreted as an albeit small, but important step.

"It is good that he is engaging," said one official. "It is better than disengaging."

Read more: 100 days of US President Donald Trump: What you need to know

Another hint that things may not be as bleak between Trump and the UN as thought is evidenced by the fact that US president is visiting the UN not just for his maiden speech. On Monday, seated alongside Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, Trump also presented (with other countries such as Germany and Britain) a proposal for the reform of the organization.

Still, his first appearance was in keeping with the president's history as a businessman: he urged the 193-nation organization to reduce bureaucracy, more clearly define its mission around the world and become "a more effective force" for peace globally.

This can again be viewed as a signal in two ways. First, that Trump, notwithstanding his isolationist rhetoric, sees a role for a reformed UN. And second, that he sees the US as continuing to playing a key role in international affairs that goes beyond very narrowly defined national interests.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Meeting of the powerful

The United Nations headquarters is located in the Turtle Bay area of Manhattan, in New York City is a milestone of modern architecture. It was designed in the late 1940s by, amongst others, Oscar Niemeyer and Le Corbusier.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Hall of decisions

The great domed hall provides space for the delegations of the member states, which participate with up to six envoys at the meetings. In this picture from 2012, the delegates are voting in favor of a resolution granting the Palestinians a special observer status at the UN.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Revamping the hall

The UN General Assembly is held in a vast meeting room that recently underwent an extensive 16-month renovation. Much of the hall's original 1950s design remained when it reopened in 2014, with the exception of a few modern technical updates. The background behind the UN's iconic emblem also had to be replaced as years of cigarette tar and nicotine had stained the surface.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Bold curves

The curved gallery in the lobby is a symbol of the modernity of the building. As the architecture emerged after the Second World War, the gallery was to symbolize the dawn of a new era.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

The thing with the shoe

The UN General Assembly has time and again been a place where harsh verbal exchanges have taken place between countries. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (left, next to Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko) was in such a rage in 1960 that he took off his shoe in order to pound on the table. In the picture he is still holding the shoe in his hand.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Scandals

Conflicts in the Middle East play an important role in UN meetings and often lead to scandals. In September 2012, the Iranian delegation left the hall as Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave a speech. This year observers expect conciliatory gestures from Iranian President Hassan Rohani.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

The sound of freedom

The complex is also notable for its gardens and outdoor sculptures. Here the former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan is ringing the Japanese Peace Bell. It was an official gift from Japan to the UN in 1954. It is made out of coins donated by children. The peace bell is rung at the opening of each General Assembly session.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Knotted Art

Iconic sculptures include the "Knotted Gun," called Non-Violence, a statue of a revolver with its barrel tied in a knot. The famous sculpture by the Swedish artist Carl Fredrik Reuterswärd stands near the entrance of the UN compound. The artist also gave a copy to German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in 2005 for his opposition to the Iraq war.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Memorial

During the renovation of the United Nation's headquarters in New York, most of the this large composition in stained glass by Belarusian-French artist Marc Chagall is a memorial to Dag Hammarskjold, former Secretary-General of the United Nations, and the 15 others who lost their lives in a plane crash in Africa while on a peace mission in 1961.

The UN headquarters - a house with history

Iconic art worldwide

In 1996, the "Sphere within a Sphere" by sculptor Arnaldo Pomodoro, was presented as a gift to the UN by Lamberto Dini, then Minister for Foreign Affairs of Italy. Nowadays several versions of the sculpture can be seen in many settings worldwide, including the Vatican Museums in Rome.

Dealing with the UN

That does not mean, though, that Trump will not criticize the UN in his appearances in New York. He almost surely will. But it could mean that this president — who considers himself the world's greatest dealmaker — may be ready to "do deals" with the UN and its member countries and that Washington's cuts to its UN contributions won't be as crippling as widely feared.  

While the diplomats working in the Turtle Bay neighborhood in midtown Manhattan where the UN resides remained tight-lipped about President Trump's upcoming appearance here, other locals aren't.

'I love my president'

Hakim: 'I love my country, I love my president'

"We are so happy and proud that he will be coming to this area," said John Hakim, who runs La Trattoria, a small brick-oven pizzeria, one block from the UN headquarters, when approached about what he thinks of Trump's visit. 

The 32-year-old Coptic Christian from Egypt came to the US seven years ago and opened his pizzeria in July – just in time for what promises to be brisk business once the UN General Assembly kicks off.    

"We will do our best to serve everyone and we hope we can do a good job," Hakim said.

When asked about his political views, the new restaurant owner displayed some diplomatic talent as well as some business acumen. 

"I don't care about politics. I am a US citizen. I love my country. I love my president," Hakim said, adding that if Trump were to come to his restaurant he would suggest he either try the penne with chicken or the fettuccine with shrimp.

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