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UNGA Begins As Trump Has Worked To Limit U.S. Support For International Agencies


World leaders are gathered in New York City for the annual United Nations General Assembly. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo calls it the Super Bowl for diplomats. U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley describes it as a week of speed dating. Well, there is a lot on the agenda, from North Korea to Iran. And there's a lot of unease about President Trump's approach to the U.N., as NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: On one topic - North Korea - the mood is very different from last year. That's when President Trump called Kim Jong Un Rocket Man, and the North Korean foreign minister blasted Trump as a, quote, "mentally deranged person trying to turn the U.N. into a gangsters' nest." This time around, the U.S. is planning for a second Trump-Kim summit.


MIKE POMPEO: Lord willing, I'll be traveling before the end of the year.

KELEMEN: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo doesn't see another summit as a concession, even though he wants the U.N. to keep up the pressure until North Korea gives up its nuclear weapons.


POMPEO: We're coming at this from a different direction. We're bringing the two senior leaders, the individuals who can actually make the decisions that will move this process forward - bring them together so we can continue to make progress towards what the U.N. Security Council has demanded and what Chairman Kim has promised he would do.

KELEMEN: When Trump addresses the U.N. General Assembly Tuesday and chairs a Security Council meeting Wednesday, he's likely to tone down his rhetoric on North Korea. But he's turning up the heat on Iran, according to national security adviser John Bolton.


JOHN BOLTON: We've imposed very stringent sanctions on Iran. More are coming. And what we expect from Iran is massive changes in their behavior. And until that happens, we will continue to exert what the president has called maximum pressure. That - that's what we intend to do.

KELEMEN: Bolton, who was the Bush administration's ambassador to the U.N., whipped out his well-worn U.N. Charter, making clear that this administration puts U.S. interests above any global commitments. Trump's U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley is also talking a lot about sovereignty.


NIKKI HALEY: We have pulled out of the Paris accord. We have pulled out of the Global Compact. We have pulled out of the Iran deal. And all of that is to say that the United States is determined to obviously be involved in multilateral organizations where we see it, but not in the way that they're mandated on what the United States does or that it infringes on the American people.

PETER YEO: At times, the emphasis upon sovereignty comes across as nails on the chalkboard.

KELEMEN: That's Peter Yeo, president of the Better World Campaign, which promotes stronger relations between the U.S. and the U.N. He was disappointed to see the Trump administration pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, drastically cut the number of refugees being resettled in the U.S. and cut aid to Palestinians, including through the U.N. But Yeo says the U.N. secretary general Antonio Guterres has worked hard to limit the damage.

YEO: What the secretary general wants is a strong relationship with the United States. It's impossible to get anything done in the U.N. if you don't have American support, not only financially, but also diplomatically.

KELEMEN: Yeo was glad to see President Trump begin this week on a topic that Americans can relate to - the war on drugs.

YEO: As we think about what Americans care about on a day-in, day-out basis, they're increasingly worried about their families and their friends who are addicted to opioids and the lives that are being destroyed. And the U.N. has a very strong and unique role that it plays on the global stage.

KELEMEN: President Trump noted that too, praising the U.N. secretary general for doing a, quote, "wonderful job in a very complex situation."


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I've always said the United Nations has tremendous potential, and that potential is being met. Slowly but surely, it's being met.

KELEMEN: Michele Kelemen, NPR News, the United Nations. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.