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US election jitters


Could Trump cut purse strings for International Geneva?




“The United Nations...do they ever settle anything? It’s just like a political game", Donald Trump told a Wisconsin crowd on the campaign trail in April 2016 (Keystone)

“The United Nations...do they ever settle anything? It’s just like a political game", Donald Trump told a Wisconsin crowd on the campaign trail in April 2016

(Keystone)

Budgets for United Nations agencies and other international organisations operating out of Geneva could be in jeopardy after Donald Trump’s upset presidential election win, which has left so-called International Geneva nervous about changes to US policy and funding.

Although not directly singled out by the billionaire businessman, there is nervousness in the city, which prides itself as a centre for global governance. It is home to the UN’s European headquarters, the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) and many other international organisations.

People connected to the international sector are anxious as to what comes next, especially possible changes to US policy on multilateralism and the funding of the UN and other international organisations.

“The biggest future challenge to the UN is probably the election of Donald Trump,” Thomas Bierstecker, a governance specialist at the Geneva Graduate Institute, told reporters on Thursday.

Executive decisions by outgoing US president Barack Obama on trade, climate change, the UN system and Iran could be reversed, he warned.

"America First"

Trump campaigned on a pledge to take the country on a more isolationist, protectionist "America First" path. In an interview with the New York Times in March, he criticised the UN: “We get nothing out of the United Nations. They don’t respect us, they don’t do what we want, and yet we fund them disproportionately.”

The US is the biggest financial contributor to the UN system and many international organisations. For the 2016-2017 period the UN has a regular operating budget of $5.4 billion (CHF5.3 billion). Of the $2.7 billion earmarked for 2016, the US accounts for 22%.

In a statement on Wednesday, outgoing UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon congratulated Trump for his election, while reminding him that “today's global challenges demand concerted global action and joint solutions”.

The head of Geneva’s United Nations Office, Michael Moller, refused to speculate on what actions Trump or his administration would take or their possible impact on Geneva.

“One thing is what is said on the campaign trail and another when the reality of leadership sets in. Let’s talk about it in a few months,” he told swissinfo.ch, adding that the UN works with every government, ‘whoever it may be’.

‘Catastrophe’

But some observers are predicting the worst.

Daniel Warner, a regular commentator on international affairs in the Swiss city, described Trump’s election as a ‘catastrophe’ for International Geneva.

“He’s an ‘American first’ person, he doesn’t like Nato or the United Nations and he’s against the Trans-Pacific Partnership … He would cut budgets for certain things like foreign aid and the state department would be in trouble, no question about that,” said Warner, an American who works as Assistant Director for International Relations at DCAF, the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

A UN official who covers both Geneva and New York told swissinfo.ch that staff were ‘very worried’ about the consequences in terms of budget.

“They remember John Bolton's relationship with the Kofi Annan administration. However, Bolton was held back by a Democrat House. This time all branches are Republican, so things could be tougher. Further he has already promised cuts for climate change programmes and we also know the Republicans don't like the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) because of its links with planned parenthood,” he said, preferring to remain anonymous.

John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the UN for 2005-2006 under George W Bush, has been cited as a possible candidate for secretary of state in a Trump administration. He was a trenchant critic of the UN for much of his career. In 1994, he infamously said: "If the UN secretariat building in New York lost ten stories, it would not make a bit of difference."

International Geneva

Geneva is home to the headquarters of numerous international organisations. In all, some 29,500 international diplomats and civil servants are based in the city, of whom around 2,300 staff are working for 250 non-governmental organisations. 

Around 9,500 staff work for the United Nations family in Geneva, which is the largest concentration of UN personnel in the world. There are also 174 states represented by permanent diplomatic missions to the UN. 

Annually, Geneva is host to the largest number of international conferences and meetings – 2,700 – ahead of New York, welcoming 200,000 people. In addition, there are 3,000 professional and private visits by heads of state, government and ministers. Some 930 multinationals are also registered in Geneva, providing over 76,000 jobs.

Don’t panic

François Longchamp, president of the Geneva cantonal government who oversees International Geneva affairs, tried to remain serene.

“I don’t think the UN will be a priority for the Trump administration. I don’t think people voted for Trump for his foreign policy positions. The situation will calm down. There is no reason to panic,” he told swissinfo.ch.

“The only possible consequence for International Geneva is if America takes a stance and suspends its financial contribution to the UN. But let’s wait and see.”

One Geneva-based organisation has been in the Trump firing line: the WTO. Trump has described the organisation as a "disaster" and suggested he could pull the US out of the WTO if the rules proved an obstacle to his plans to protect US manufacturing.

On Wednesday WTO Director General Roberto Azevedo posted an olive-branch tweet congratulating Trump and offering his support.

"US leadership in the global economy and the multilateral trading system remains vital," Azevedo tweeted.

Climate target?

In his Wednesday statement, Ban Ki-moon urged the new US administration to “strengthen the bonds of international cooperation as we strive together to uphold shared ideals, combat climate change, advance human rights, promote mutual understanding and implement the Sustainable Development Goals to achieve lives of peace, prosperity and dignity for all”.

But his calls may fall on deaf ears, in particular those relating to climate change.

And Geneva - home to numerous climate-related agencies, such as the WMO, the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - could be directly affected by future US policy.

“We are afraid that our programmes would be cut as he’s a climate change sceptic,” declared an official who works for a climate agency in the city, also preferring to remain anonymous.

Trump has dismissed climate change as a hoax and has threatened to tear up the Paris accord for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, worked out in two decades of tortuous negotiations.

Should the UN and international organisations in Geneva be worried about the nomination of Donald Trump as the next president of the United States? Let us know in the comments section below.

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