DAVID GREENE, HOST:
President Trump is making his debut at the United Nations this week. Though his main speech is going to be tomorrow, he is setting the tone today by calling for deep cuts in the bureaucracy at the United Nations. And also the U.S. delegation is smaller than in years past, and that too sends a message, as we hear from NPR's Michele Kelemen.
MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: When Sheba Crocker was an assistant secretary of state in the Obama administration, she went to the U.N. with hundreds of her colleagues. She describes it as one-stop-shopping diplomacy.
SHEBA CROCKER: It's just an opportunity to sort of take advantage of the fact that there are so many countries there so you can get a lot of business done in a short period of time.
KELEMEN: And the U.S. has a chance to signal its global priorities. This year Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wanted a small footprint - a toeprint, some officials called it - and Crocker says that in itself is a signal.
CROCKER: The signal that it sends is that the United States is just in a very different place. We may be a country in the room in all of these various events, but we're not going to necessarily be trying to drive the discussion and play the role that I think uniquely only really the United States can in terms of bringing other countries together to try to really solve some of the challenges.
KELEMEN: Challenges like the four looming famines in Africa and the Middle East and the worst refugee crisis since World War II. Crocker, now with the humanitarian group CARE, says if the U.S. is seen as pulling back, it will be hard to convince others to share the burden. But State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert is brushing off concern about this smaller U.S. delegation, saying support staff can help from Washington without paying for pricey New York hotels.
HEATHER NAUERT: We don't feel that this year we need the bodies that we have had in years past. The secretary firmly believes, coming out of the private sector, that we all need to be good stewards of taxpayer dollars.
KELEMEN: That's a big part of today's U.N. reform meeting. Ambassador Nikki Haley says more than 120 countries are taking part, having signed a pledge to make the U.N. more cost-efficient.
US AMBASSADOR TO UN NIKKI HALEY: We've got a massive reform package being led by the secretary general that really streamlines not just the processes but also the budget as it goes forward and makes the U.N. much more effective.
KELEMEN: She calls it a new day at the U.N., claiming to have saved half a billion dollars in peacekeeping bills already. Crocker, the Obama-era official, says the secretary general seems to be navigating this well.
CROCKER: There may be some effort to align here in things that the secretary general knows that the United States wants, but an agenda that he has spent a lot of time sort of looking under all of the mattresses at the U.N. and trying to figure out what's working, what's not, what he needs to change.
KELEMEN: In a news conference last week Secretary General Antonio Guterres says he's been trying to create a constructive relationship with the Trump administration and is not alarmed by Trump's talk of an America-first policy.
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SECRETARY-GENERAL ANTONIO GUTERRES: When I was prime minister of Portugal, I always considered that for me as prime minister of Portugal, Portugal would come first. But it's my deep belief that the best way to preserve the American interest is to engage positively in global affairs and to engage positively in support to multilateral organizations like the U.N.
KELEMEN: President Trump once dismissed the U.N. as a club for people to get together and talk. But Ambassador Haley says that's not how the administration is approaching the U.N. this week.
HALEY: No one is going to grip and grin. The United States is going to work. And I think with all the challenges around the world, I think the international community is going to see that.
KELEMEN: And there's a lot on the agenda, starting with North Korea, where the Trump administration needs to work with others to get sanctions to bite. Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.