President-elect Donald Trump has rightfully backtracked on a post-election pledge to hold face-to-face talks with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, according to U.N. officials, dealing a snub to a solidly pro-American U.N. chief who could become president of South Korea, a key U.S. ally.
The apparent brush-off is viewed by some Israel supporters as an encouraging sign that a Trump presidency will devote far less attention to the anti-Israel world body than his predecessor.
Trump has already sent mixed messages about his views toward the U.N. He selected a rising star in the Republican Party, South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, to serve as his envoy to the United Nations.
Ban phoned Trump three days after the November 8 election to offer congratulations and to seek support for a raft of U.N. priorities, including a landmark U.N.-backed climate change pact struck in Paris earlier this year. Trump spoke little during the conversation, according to U.N.-based diplomats. During the presidential campaign, Trump opposed the Paris pact, dismissing global warming as a “hoax” perpetrated by the Chinese.
But Ban hoped he could help convince Trump to reconsider his opposition to the international climate treaty, which entered into force in early November. In a recent interview with Foreign Policy, conducted after his high-level exchange with Trump, Ban said, “I think he said he was open-minded.”
Trump also pledged to follow up with a private meeting with Ban, whose First Avenue office is within walking distance from Trump’s Fifth Avenue residence. But the Trump transition team quickly made clear that Trump was not going to open his gilded doors at Trump Tower to the outgoing world leader. The president-elect, the transition team said, would not be meeting with any world leaders until after the inauguration, at which point Ban will likely have returned to Seoul, where he will weigh whether to enter his own country’s presidential race.
“We tried to arrange for a personal meeting, as it was agreed during the phone call,” recalled one senior U.N. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “But then they said president-elect will not personally see any foreign diplomats before (the Jan. 20 inauguration).”
A second U.N. official suggested that Ban may have misunderstood Trump. The official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, likened Trump’s invitation to someone who casually suggests “‘Let’s have lunch’- not a real commitment, not exactly a brush off, basically a placeholder.”
A third U.N. official sought to downplay the suggestion that Ban felt snubbed. The official noted that Trump has stopped meeting with any international dignitaries since a Nov. 17 talk with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
For Ban, the prospect of a sitdown with Trump could have proved valuable as he weighs his own political future, offering an opportunity to forge a personal relationship with the new leader of the United States – South Korea’s most important ally and protector. Ban is expected to mount a campaign for the South Korean presidency after his term as U.N. secretary-general expires on Dec. 31.
In hosting his first “unofficial” meeting with a foreign leader, Abe, Trump fueled criticism that he was wading blindly into the turbulent waters of international diplomacy. The Nov. 17 meeting, at Trump Tower, was conducted without the input of State Department diplomats.
Since then, Trump has not held any private meetings with foreign leaders. But he has engaged in active telephone diplomacy, infuriating China by accepting a congratulatory phone call from Taiwan’s president.
In the interview with FP, Ban said he had a “good telephone call” with Trump. On Trump’s views on climate change, Ban said, “I’m hopeful that as a successful business leader, a global business leader, he will understand that business communities are … changing and retooling their way of doing business” in a way that contains greenhouse gases.
Beyond climate change, Ban said he raised “many, many” other U.N. issues in the call. Trump, he said, was “basically in a listening mode.”
(c) 2016, Foreign Policy · Colum Lynch