Press Conference Call: The U.N. General Assembly

COLM F. QUINN: Hey, folks, this is Colm Quinn at CSIS, just kicking off this conference call today. Could I just ask the people who are on this call if you can mute your side just so – just so we can hear our speakers and you can all hear us? That’d be fantastic.

Thank you all for joining us. First of all, I know there’s a lot of news breaking, and so always appreciate you guys being able to come along with us.

A final point is that we will be transcribing this. There will be a transcript available very shortly after. So please take a look at your in box this afternoon.

Before I introduce our speakers, just a point of housekeeping. We’re on a(n) odd bit of software from AT&T today. We’re usually on software where you can raise your hand, there’s a moderator. For some reason that didn’t work out today with AT&T. So I – what we do with the questions, it’ll just be a bit of a – we’ll have to have a bit of organized chaos, but we will move to that when the time comes.

I want to introduce our speakers today: Jon Alterman – he’s the senior vice president, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and the director of our Middle East Program; and Lisa Collins, who is a fellow with our Korea Chair. We’re going to have quick remarks, and then we will – (inaudible). So – (inaudible) – give over to Jon Alterman – (inaudible).

JON B. ALTERMAN: Good morning. It seems to me that there are really two sets of issues that are going to be dominating this General Assembly debate. The first – they’re related. The first is Iran and the second is to make sense of the Trump administration.

You know, I think with Iran everybody is aware of the challenges that Iran poses, partly because of Iran’s direct behavior. Iran is a country which does not believe much in the status quo and has been doing all kinds of things that its neighbors find threatening and destabilizing.

The second is Iran presents a challenge to efforts to maintain international consensus. The Iran deal, in the eyes of many members of the U.N., represented progress, and certainly froze the Iran nuclear program for a time. But, you know, in the United States, Israel, and the Gulf, fear that the JCPOA gives Iran access to resources with which Iran will create more mischief in its neighborhood. And therefore, there’s a lot of concern whether the JCPOA actually makes anybody safer.

If Iran is not currently a status quo power, is there anything the international community can do, is there anything the United States can do that would make them into a status quo power? And I think that that problem of how does the world deal with Iran is going to be hanging over this General Assembly discussion and the side discussions that are occurring there.

The second is the United States. I think the world is still trying to take the measure of this president. World leaders still wake up in the morning thinking of ways they can be a friend of the president of the United States, but they also wonder what does it mean to be a friend of the president. I think it’s easy to miss just how much the world reads the U.S. press and tries to follow U.S. politics, tries to understand who is up and who is down in Washington, what’s the president up to, what does the president mean, what does the president stand for, and who is the president—I mean, who is he really? I think this is something – for a number of leaders, this is going to be their first chance to see him, to judge him, to try to get on his good side. And as I said, they will have been preparing for a chance encounter for weeks. How that goes off is unclear.

How the U.S. will be judged is unclear. You know, Tillerson is relatively new, and he has established no clear partners in international diplomacy. He’s been adamant that the State Department should take a smaller team up to New York, and he seems not to rely much on his own bureaucracy. But the UNGA is an incredibly sophisticated dance that doesn’t really play to Tillerson’s strengths or to the president’s strengths. You often have one 15-minute meeting after another, keeping the agenda moving, staying focused, working through your talking points. It’s kind of like speed dating from hell. And this goes on for days, and it requires a whole team to make it work. I don’t think this administration has been through an exercise that really compares in the complexity and the disciplined nature of several days of UNGA meeting.

The U.S. is always the queen bee. Everybody wants to be friends with the United States. Everybody wants to be close to the United States. There’s a huge amount of focus on the United States and performing, and performing the way they want to and transmitting the messages they want to transmit is going to be quite an endurance test.

There is some anxiety, though, what the president’s going to say. I’m relatively unworried. I think the president is always careful when he’s scripted. There’s still a question of who he will single out, exactly, and what he’ll say about them. But I think that the UNGA speech is not something that should keep people up at night.

For the institution, the larger issue is really the U.S. financial contribution to the U.N. The U.S. is in about a billion dollars in arrears for its assessed contributions. The even larger issue, in many cases, are the voluntary contributions to things like the World Food Program, U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. These are institutions the United States provides about 40 percent of the budget. The needs are huge.

And if the U.S. were to decide that it doesn’t care about the U.N. and the U.N. is a cumbersome and waste-filled bureaucracy that only serves itself, the consequences for the U.N., which is running operations in dozens and dozens of countries with vulnerable people around the world, would be profound. And I think that subtle underlaying issue that everybody will be paying attention to both in the president’s U.N. speech and his meetings with people, and just his body language, is will the United States continue to contribute to peacekeeping, where the U.S. pays 28 percent of costs to the U.N. itself, but also to all these voluntary programs. And if the U.S. isn’t willing to do that, what alternatives are there? I think that’s the traditional problem for the U.N. I think that the secretary-general is going to be focused on it. And I think we may get at least some early indications later this week.

There are, of course, a lot of other issues that will be discussed at the U.N. Arab-Israeli is always discussed. Yemen will come up. Libya will come up. But it seems to me that all of those other Middle East issues, which might in a different year get a lot of attention, are all going to be in the background, first, to Iran issues and, second, to just getting a keener sense of this administration, where it wants to go.

MR. QUINN: Thank you, Jon.

Moving over to Lisa Collins, who’s going to take us through.

LISA COLLINS: Great. Nice to meet everyone on the phone. I definitely agree with Dr. Alterman. And I think that a big focus of this meeting will be on the Trump administration and his proposed agenda for reform and budget cuts. And I think also a focus will be on North Korea in light of their increasing pattern of provocations, including the latest missile test that happened yesterday and the sixth nuclear test that happened only roughly a week ago. So I think that there will be a lot of focus on these issues.

And I think that one thing that people will probably be looking to the Trump administration to figure out is what their path forward with regards to North Korea will be, whether or not they will continue to ramp up sanctions both though the United Nations Security Council and also domestically through unilateral U.S. law and sanctions designations. I think they will also be looking to see if Trump is looking towards a long path with North Korea, and looking towards diplomacy eventually.

I think the United Nations members will be thinking about what they can contribute in terms of increasing diplomatic pressure on North Korea, but also looking for a way to decrease the tensions that have become part of the provocation pattern with regard to North Korea. I think that people will also be wondering how the Trump administration will be filling positions within the administration that deal with specifically Northeast Asia, the two Koreas – South Korea and North Korea. President – South Korean President Moon is planning to give a speech at the U.N. General Assembly during the week that he’s there. And I think that people will be watching to see what South Korea will be saying about their policies with regard to North Korea going forward.

Yesterday President Moon had a meeting with his national security council. And in that meeting, he said that the time for dialogue with North Korea right now is not great. But I think he still, in his mind, is looking to the long-term plan which, for him, would include some sort of dialogue with North Korea. But he continues to work very closely and to signal that the government – South Korean government will work very closely with the U.S. within the boundaries of the alliance to make sure that North Korea knows that there’s a cost to the continuing pattern of provocations.

So I think that we can probably look to these two issues – the North Korean nuclear threat and how the Trump administration is planning to move forward with North Korea policy in the future, as some of the key issues we’ll get at the U.N. General Assembly meeting.

MR. QUINN: Thank you very much, Lisa.

And now this is the part where we’re moving over to questions. This is the part that’s going to be a little chaotic. If you just joined us, our software isn’t on today. So we can actually see – we can see that there’s maybe 20 or so people on, but can’t actually see who is on and who is raising their hands, which is making things a little odd for us. So as a – as a test of our cooperation, if we’re able – if we have a first question, and someone’s able to just go for it, we’d be able to answer it.

Q: I can go.

MR. QUINN: Go for it.

Q: Hi. James Reinl with Al Jazeera. Thanks so much for the briefing, guys.

I think you guys, you know, really touched on what are the core issues at the UNGA. And I guess my question is going to be, can you go a little bit further on them? Two points: First one would be on Iran that Mr. Alterman raised. You know, we’re going to be looking out for what Trump says during his speech as some kind of indication for what happens after he decertifies on October the 15th. You know, it’s a little bit up in the air as to what happens next. But as I understand it, the administration is moving into the idea that he doesn’t recertify to Congress, and then he goes back to the Europeans and says: Well, maybe we can kind of renegotiate this deal. So they kind of decertify it, but don’t pull out of the JCPOA. Maybe you can give me an idea of how you think that plays out.

And my other question is about – a little bit more about U.N. reform. Obviously, Trump’s going to be coming into the meeting on Monday saying I want to, you know, reduce the American exposure to U.N. costs. And the U.N. seems to be positioning itself to saying, yes, yes, yes, of course, we can do that, but, you know, we’re going to open up a new department for reform, for example. And then there’s going to be 192 other countries, you know, in the conversation and it turns into this, you know, U.N. talking shop again. So maybe you can give me a feel for how you think those two things will play out.

Thanks so much guys.

MR. ALTERMAN: It’s clear to me that nobody has made any decisions, either the administration or on Capitol Hill, about how to deal with the president’s skepticism toward the JCPOA. What I continue to hear in my conversations with people on the Hill is that the Hill is not going to spike the JCPOA at this point and thinks it’s important to preserve it. I think they will find some sort of outcome which will allow the president to say he’s made his points and allow the JCPOA to endure. The extent to which that’s the president actually decertifying, or threatening to decertify, or extending the period so the president doesn’t have to keep certifying every few months, which creates a bit of agita every time—I suspect probably a mix of things and then a mix of consequences for the president not being satisfied.

I think also I would expect to see the Hill agree to increased sanctions for other kinds of Iranian activities the way that the president has said he’s gotten things in exchange. But I think, frankly, this is largely going to be a negotiation between the president and the Hill.

And I don’t think much of the rest of the world, the P5+1, has much interest in reopening the JCPOA, and I don’t think it will be reopened. There might be some sort of a nominal gesture toward it. But to my mind, the reality is the JCPOA is going to remain in effect, the rest of the world is going to continue to explore deeper ties with Iran, and the U.S. will continue to be deeply alarmed by the whole range of things that Iran does. And some of our allies will be 100 percent behind us and some of our allies will be worried that we’re going to tip over the applecart.

On U.N. reform issues, I think the secretary-general, as a veteran of the U.N., is actually quite focused on this issue. The question is whether the U.S. is going to be an asset to him or a liability. I think it is quite possible for the secretary-general to reach understandings with the administration where the fear of U.S. dissatisfaction is a tool for him. I don’t think he’s going to get a lot of embraces from the administration. But to me, the key issue is that it’s coordinated in such a way that the U.S. pressure is constructive rather than destructive.

There’s no question in my mind that there will be tremendous U.S. pressure to increase efficiencies and cut the budget. The real question is, does that have the effect of cutting fat or muscle? And that’s going to depend on how well the secretary-general can win the confidence of the administration that he’s got the skills and the intention to move things in the right direction.

MR. QUINN: OK, good.

Next question if we could?

Q: If I can jump in. This is George Condon with National Journal.

Two questions. The first one, do either of you have any confidence at all that the president has any understanding of all the things the United Nations does?

And secondly, if I can follow on, Jon, you talked about the leaders want to take the measure of the president. After eight months, haven’t they pretty much reached conclusions? In the early meetings, for example, they all realized the way to his heart was to praise his historic election victory and praise him on that. But haven’t they reached conclusions on him?

MR. ALTERMAN: I’ll let Lisa address the first question and does the president understand the U.N., because frankly I have no idea what he understands and doesn’t understand. I mean, he hasn’t talked a lot about the United Nations. He hasn’t talked publicly about sort of the need to balance. So I’m sure Lisa knows from their golfing outings together, but I don’t know. (Laughter.)

I also don’t think the world’s reached a conclusion about the president. I think just, you know, last week we’ve seen the president do what many people, I think, thought was a surprising reach-out to the Democratic leadership. What does that mean? Where will it go? Nobody knows. But the fact is you can’t write off the American president. It doesn’t help you to just denigrate the American president as an idiot. The reality is the American president is going to have power as long as he’s in office. The United States has tremendous power regardless of who the president is.

I think people constantly scour the National Journal and other fine publications because they’re looking for tidbits that will give them real insight. And, you know, we forget the extent to which an open press in the United States is so much more valuable than most countries could ever hope for from an intelligence operation. It’s more than most countries could help for – could hope for from a skilled diplomatic service.

The American press provides insights and opinions and viewpoints to the entire world constantly. And the world pays – the people who matter in foreign affairs and national security around the world pay tremendously close attention to the U.S. press. And I’m always stunned not only at how much they understand U.S. foreign policy, but how people understand U.S. domestic policy and link decisions in U.S. domestic policy for their implications in foreign policy. In many cases they do that better than most American audiences because that’s their job, and it’s a job they do pretty well.

MS. COLLINS: So just to address the first question, does the president really know what the U.N. does, with regards to North Korea I think one thing that may come up is, again, about the proposal to decrease the U.S. contribution to the U.N. budget. And right now the Trump administration is pushing for an increase in sanctions and sanctions enforcement and implementation.

A lot of that is done in the United Nations through the panel of experts, the North Korean focused panel of experts, and that group does need increasing amounts of resources in order to do a lot of the investigation work to find the evidence that is necessary in order to follow through on a lot of these enforcement activities and implementation with regard to the sanctions.

So I think that there may be some question about that, about at the same time that the Trump administration is proposing to decrease the budget for the United Nations they’re also pushing for an increase in things that require a lot more resources, especially financial resources, personnel resources. So I think that there will – should be some discussion about that, and how to make that effective proposal about how to continue to do this good work and increasing work on sanctions. But at the same time, if there are budget cuts, that may affect how they actually operate in reality.

MR. QUINN: Thank you, George.

And just for other people, you know, I know this is a little chaotic. We are here till – we do have until noon. So if you can’t get in your question right away, just patience, definitely, which (I commend ?).

So next up, please.

Q: Hi. Could I – if you can hear me, could I jump in with a question please?

MR. QUINN: Go ahead.

Q: This is Somini Sengupta from The New York Times.

I wonder, Lisa Collins, if you would please give your assessment of Nikki Haley, not just vis-à-vis U.N. reform, but what her influence has been on foreign-policy issues at large, including but not limited to North Korea.

MS. COLLINS: So I do think that she has quite a bit of influence. She’s proven to be a fairly effective negotiator, and certainly when it comes to negotiating the sanctions packages that the U.S. has put forth in the United Nations Security Council. I do think that there are times when there are different messages coming out of the administration with regard to North Korea, increasing sanctions or moving towards dialogue. But she clearly has put forth a very strong policy line in terms of North Korea, and that’s increasing the pressure through diplomatic changes with countries around the world, working – trying to work more closely with China and Russia, and also trying to get them to implement sanctions to a greater degree. And that is by cracking down both on Chinese entities that are helping facilitate North Korean activities, and also trying to get Russia to play a greater role, to step up, to use their diplomatic pressure and (office ?) to cut back on the number of North Korean laborers that are currently working in Russia and sending back foreign currency.

I do think that she has the ear of the president. He does seem to listen to her, at least with regards to North Korea issues. And from his perspective, she may have been able to get results because she’s been able to get this latest sanctions resolution approved in a very quick fashion after the last – (inaudible). So I do think that she does seem to have the trust of the president.

I don’t know if Dr. Alterman has any additional thoughts on that.

MR. ALTERMAN: Well, I mean, I would say that she also seems to be playing a very prominent role in the Iran diplomacy. I know when I spoke to senior folks in the Iranian mission, there was a hope that they would have a mind meld with Rex Tillerson because he came out of the oil business. But in this administration I’ve seen a lot of Nikki Haley on Iran, and she seems to, as Lisa said, have the confidence of the president and seems to be moving forward with the agenda.

MR. QUINN: All right. Thank you.

Next up, please.

Q: Hi. Can you guys hear me? It’s Margaret Talev over at Bloomberg.

MR. QUINN: Yeah, I can hear you just fine, Margaret. Go ahead.

Q: Thanks for doing the call.

So, you guys, we talked a little bit of the call about what leaders of other countries may be looking at in terms of for some a first chance to see the U.S. president. If I could just sort of flip the question: How do you see President Trump’s first U.N. General Assembly in terms of an opportunity for him? Is it a reset? Is it a double down? Is it something not cliched that you could come up with? But I mean, like what – if you’re him or you’re in the administration, what are you thinking, this is really my chance to do X?

MR. ALTERMAN: I think he must look at it partly as an opportunity to have the world’s attention, and partly it’s the world’s most heated cocktail party.

Q: (Laughs.)

MR. ALTERMAN: This isn’t the way he likes to operate. You know, it’s sort of – I think he likes working in groups and he likes unwinding with people, but this is a lot of very structured meetings one after the other. You have to stay on topic. You have to work through lists that other people have prepared. This is not the kind of environment he likes. But that’s the kind of environment that the U.S. president has to plunge into once a year. And I would imagine that very little of it will seem fun and a lot of it will seem very hard, especially the eighth or ninth or tenth meeting of the day.

Does that help, Margaret?

Q: Yeah. I mean, do you think he can – do you think that he can use it as an opportunity to actually get any consensus on North Korea or Iran? Or do you think that – yeah.

MR. ALTERMAN: I mean, first, it’s a tremendous opportunity because the world wants to work with the United States if there’s any way to do so. He has an opportunity to show surprising openness, which got Chuck Schumer to remark “he liked us,” right? I mean, he’s not a person without significant talents. I just think that the structure of the week doesn’t play to his strengths and doesn’t – is not the way he seems to like to organize his energy and his day. And I think that’s going to be a challenge. I think there will be things that come out of this General Assembly which will be surprising to people coming from the president. Let me start again. I think the president will do some surprising things at the General Assembly, some of which people will think are amazingly positive and some which people will think are amazingly negative. Hard to imagine him being scripted for the whole week.

MR. QUINN: OK, folks. If you – we’ve a next question come in.

Q: Hi, is it OK if I jump in?

MR. QUINN: Go ahead.

Q: Great. This is Alicia Rose with NHK.

So this question’s mainly for Lisa Collins. But you mentioned that U.N. members will be looking at the president to explain his path forward with North Korea. And DPRK will be sitting, you know, in the room when the president will be making his speech. How do you think the president’s going to be addressing the DPRK issue in his speech? And also, do you think we’re going to see any action or deliverables out of UNGA, or will it be mainly in the speech?

MS. COLLINS: Sorry, you’re referring to the South Korean president, right, what will Trump –

Q: What will the U.S. president be doing in his – what will the American president, President Trump, be doing when he’s addressing DPRK in his speech?

MS. COLLINS: So I’m not sure whether or not he will have a specific reference to North Korea in the speech that he gives to the General Assembly. I think it probably will – hopefully come up as one of the issues that the U.S. has been working on. I think if he does refer to it, it probably will be in the context of the U.S. working very closely with its allies, like South Korea and Japan, perhaps giving notice to North Korea that there’s a cost to the missile tests and the nuclear test that it’s continuing to conduct.

I think that he will probably continue with his line about maximum pressure, engagement – maximum engagement with other countries around the world to put pressure, diplomatic pressure, on North Korea to change its behavior. But I don’t think that he’ll stray too much outside of the boundaries of that. And hopefully there will be coordination with allies on their policy lines before he adds anything to the speech about North Korea.

MR. QUINN: Thanks. Thanks, Alicia.

Anyone up next? Don’t be shy. If we have any more questions I’m happy to take them, if not – we’ll give it a couple seconds.

(Pause.)

OK, folks. I want to thank everyone for joining us today. I think we had a great discussion, and I really hope it helped on your end. Apologies for any of the technical stuff. We’ll have that worked out with AT&T for next time.

I will ask you to take a look at your inboxes later today or on CSIS.org. We’ll have a transcript there so you can pull that for your reporting. Of course, if you do need anything next week during UNGA, please let us know – myself, Colm Quinn, Andrew Schwartz, and Sofie Kodner in our External Relations Department are on hand to help.

Thanks again for joining us this morning, and we will hear from you on the next one. Thank you very much.

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Jon B. Alterman
Senior Vice President, Zbigniew Brzezinski Chair in Global Security and Geostrategy, and Director, Middle East Program

Lisa Collins

Colm Quinn