2018 will be a year of significant tensions at the United Nations. The Korean situation, the Syrian war and debates over the Iranian nuclear deal are all likely to create friction in the Security Council. UN peacekeeping forces face risks of serious violence in cases ranging from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) to Lebanon.
The Security Council played a leading role in containing the North Korean nuclear crisis in 2017, passing two packages of heavy sanctions against Pyongyang. China and the US will try to maintain this cooperation. But if North Korea takes further provocative actions, it may be difficult for the Council to agree on additional serious sanctions. If Washington edges towards military action on the Korean Peninsula, there could be a serious breakdown in UN diplomacy between China and the US.
The Trump administration is also likely to create divisions in the Security Council if it makes further efforts to undermine the Iranian nuclear deal. The overall deterioration of the security situation in the Middle East more broadly will be a central issue in UN diplomacy through 2018. There is a growing possibility of new hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that would put the long-standing UN peace operation in the area (UNIFIL) at severe risk of casualties.
The UN force on the Golan Heights, which has already been severely constrained by terrorist groups during the Syrian war, could also be caught up in a regional conflict.
The UN may also need to find a new strategy towards Syria itself. Russia and its Syrian and Iranian allies do not want UN peacekeepers or political officers to play a significant role in Syria. However, Moscow may press European aid donors to support UN civilian reconstruction efforts in the country, arguing that this will limit further refugee flows.
UN agencies could end up effectively working on behalf of the Syrian regime to provide basic services to the population, and possibly facilitate refugee return, although this could leave UN officials at risk of terrorist attacks.
Other UN engagements in the Middle East, such mediation in Yemen, can make little progress while tensions between Iran and Saudi Arabia remain high. UN aid agencies will struggle to find the resources to assist the suffering across the region, especially if there are fresh flare-ups of violence in Lebanon and Iraq to deal with.
In Africa, UN peacekeepers face serious ongoing conflicts in cases including South Sudan and the Central African Republic. Presidential elections in the DRC, supposed to take place in 2018 after a controversial delay in 2016, could also result in serious violence between supporters and opponents of President Joseph Kabila. The UN is likely to need military reinforcements in one or more of the cases to contain trouble.
The Trump administration has demanded major cuts to the peacekeeping budget, and will be skeptical of most proposals to expand existing UN forces, or launch new blue helmet operations. A possible exception is Ukraine: Washington has indicated that it is could support the creation of a UN peacekeeping force in the east of the country to ease tensions with Russia. While Moscow’s interest in this option is uncertain, it remains possible that the UN will launch a mission in Ukraine in 2018.
In this scenario, European countries (especially those outside NATO, such as Austria and Sweden) could face calls to provide the backbone of a credible UN presence, possibly alongside Russian-speaking troops from states such as Kazakhstan.
Security issues will not be the only source of tension at the UN in 2018. The US has threatened to withdraw from the Human Rights Council unless the body reduces its criticism of Israel. While European governments are working hard to persuade the US not to pull out, there is still a good chance that Washington will eventually do so.
A focus of diplomacy in New York will be migration. UN member states are meant to agree a new compact on improving international migration management in July 2018. This has the potential to create tensions between European governments and developing countries over how to handle large flows of migrants in cases like Libya.
There will also be negotiations in New York on proposals by Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to reform the UN secretariat and development system. Guterres has secured considerable support from UN members including the US for plans to streamline the organization’s antiquated management structures. Yet there will be lengthy debates over the budgetary and organizational aspects of these reforms, potentially distracting Guterres and the UN system from broader global problems.
One global theme that Guterres will emphasize throughout 2018 under any circumstances is the need to strengthen the Paris climate change agreement, despite President Trump’s announcement that the US will leave the pact in 2020.
Trump has indicated he is still willing to negotiate over the issue, but real talks on revising the agreement to meet US interests are unlikely in 2018. Instead, China will play an increasingly prominent role as a leading actor in the fight against climate change.
China is becoming an ambitious player in the UN system overall, acting increasingly assertively to promote its positions on issues including human rights. Beijing will continue to look for ways to raise its profile at the UN through 2018 – possibly be implementing promises to send thousands of new troops on UN peacekeeping missions – and while most states will welcome this, the US may see it as a challenge.
There is a risk that the Trump administration’s relations with the UN could deteriorate further if current US ambassador in New York, Nikki Haley, stands down. Haley is a mainstream Republican who has succeeded in moderating President Trump’s strongest anti-UN policies. She has been tipped as a potential Secretary of State or presidential candidate, and could leave New York in 2018 to pursue higher office in Washington. President Trump could then nominate a harder line replacement as US ambassador to the UN, reversing Haley’s moderate stance.
Despite the risks of rising tensions at the UN in 2018, however, it is worth noting that the organization continues to play a significant role in managing and containing major potential crises such as that over Korea. The UN may be an imperfect and fragile institution, but it will be at the center of high stakes diplomacy through 2018.