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U.N. General Assembly: How Will Trump's Agenda Fare?


World leaders are converging on midtown Manhattan for the annual U.N. General Assembly high-level debate. You can expect to hear a lot about America's role in the world and the Trump era. A key buzzword will be sovereignty, as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Trump administration officials haven't shied away from their strongly held beliefs about the United Nations. National security adviser John Bolton was even asked recently at the Federalist Society why the U.S. doesn't just pull out. He cited former U.N. Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick, who was once asked the same question.


JOHN BOLTON: And she paused for a moment and thought and said, because it's not worth the trouble.

KELEMEN: The Trump administration has pulled out of the U.N. Human Rights Council in part, Bolton says, because of what he calls sovereignty concerns. The current U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, also cited similar reasons to explain why the U.S. pulled out of the Paris climate accord and the Global Compact on Migration.


NIKKI HALEY: All of these things that we felt like were - mandating things on the United States. Those aren't things we want to be involved in.

KELEMEN: And she says President Trump is going to talk about sovereignty in his U.N. speech Tuesday.


HALEY: It is not saying multilateralism can't work. But it's saying sovereignty is a priority over all of that.

KELEMEN: Multilateralism - that is, countries working together to resolve problems - is key to the U.N. system. And U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres stresses that as he carefully navigates questions about President Trump.


ANTONIO GUTERRES: I don't like to personalize things. I think we are facing a situation in which, in different areas and for different reasons, the trust of people in their political establishments, the trust of states among each other, the trust of many people, international organizations has been eroded, and that multilateralism has been on the fire.

KELEMEN: A longtime U.N. watcher, Richard Gowan, who's with a global think tank called U.N. University, says the secretary-general has done an impressive job managing relations with the Trump administration.

RICHARD GOWAN: Guterres has very gradually, very quietly worked with Nikki Haley and worked with Republicans in Washington to limit the damage. Nonetheless, Guterres is clearly very concerned that the multilateral system is starting to wobble.

KELEMEN: Speaking via Skype, Gowan says U.N. diplomats are bracing for a pretty aggressive speech by Trump.

GOWAN: Ironically, the U.S. emphasis on sovereignty plays very well with countries, like Russia and China, that have been trying to constrain the U.N. and limit its talk of human rights and liberal values.

KELEMEN: Trump is likely to be at odds with many other countries over Iran, too, since the U.S. pulled out of a nuclear deal that had been endorsed by the U.N. Security Council. He's chairing a council meeting on Wednesday.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.