In his first speech to Congress, President Donald Trump said that, “our foreign policy calls for a direct, robust and meaningful engagement with the world.” However, it is hard to tell how he intends to engage with the United Nations and other multilateral institutions that have been at the heart of America’s efforts in this regard for over 70 years.  Depending on the day, speaker, and audience, the message seems to vary. Trump has questioned decades-long support for institutions like the UN and NATO and then Vice President Mike Pence tries to reassure our allies that U.S. support will continue, but not necessarily as business as usual.  The criticisms levied at these institutions vary. They are constraining U.S. action. They have obsolete mandates, bloated bureaucracies filled with overpaid, unaccountable international civil servants. They allow diplomats to talk about rather than solve problems, or, in the case of the UN, enable political grandstanding to criticize Israel.  Yet, none of these criticisms are unique to Trump. His predecessors, on both sides of the aisle, have voiced them at one time or another over the years.

However, unlike Trump, they have not questioned the very virtue of multilateral diplomacy. Instead, Republicans and Democratic administrations have shown a willingness to work with like-minded partner governments either to try to reform these institutions or create new, more informal and flexible platforms, outside the traditional multilateral system, that provide the benefits of multilateral engagement with fewer of the burdens.  Examples over the past few decades abound, on sensitive issues ranging from export controls, counter-proliferation, money laundering and terrorist financing, and, most recently, terrorism.  In fact, while President Barack Obama is rightly credited for reinvigorating U.S. leadership and engagement with the United Nations and other formal multilateral institutions, perhaps his administration’s most significant and long-lasting multilateral achievement — the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF) — was set up outside the traditional multilateral system.

If the Trump team took a close look at how the GCTF operates and what it has achieved in less than six years, it might discover an Obama foreign policy achievement worth reinforcing and a multilateral initiative meriting even Trump’s unabashed support. When it comes to improving international counterterrorism capacity, cooperation, and know-how, the GCTF is nimble and thus able to quickly respond and pool resources to address evolving threats at a fraction of the cost of the United Nations. 

The Gap:

The idea for the GCTF was initiated based upon the realization by a critical mass of countries that there were a number of gaps in the international architecture for countering terrorism that needed to be addressed. First, the growing needs for building the counterterrorism capabilities of governments and achieving broad observance and acceptance of practical counterterrorism standards and best practices were not being met. Second, with the United Nations too big, and viewed by many as too often focused on process and politics, the G7 too exclusive, regional organizations too limited in geographic scope, there was no central, reliable intergovernmental platform that would allow counterterrorism policymakers and practitioners from different regions to engage on a sustained basis on a variety of policies, strategies, and practices. In a world where the terrorist threats were increasingly transcending borders and regions, there was no venue for national counterterrorism coordinators, prosecutors, judges, border control, and prison officials to meet with their counterparts from key countries in different regions to share experiences, challenges, and needs, and build trust. Simply put, not enough was being done to reach out to key partners—beyond traditional allies—including Muslim-majority countries.
The Solution

The GCTF, which the Obama White House launched to coincide with the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, was designed to address these gaps and to give a boost to the UN’s then flagging efforts. Its 30 members were carefully selected, with particular attention given to ensuring front-line countries with experience dealing with terrorism (e.g., Algeria, Colombia Egypt, Indonesia, Morocco, and Nigeria), as well as traditional U.S. allies (e.g., Australia, Denmark, the EU, and The Netherlands) and new counterterrorism donors (including Qatar, the United Arab Emirates), and, in order to help ensure peaceful coexistence with the UN, all five members of the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council.

Action not Talk

One of the recurring criticisms of multilateral bodies is, to use one of Trump’s favorite phrases, “all talk and no action.” The GCTF, however, has produced far more in far less time than just about any such body. Drawing on expertise from government and non-government practitioners alike, it has developed a library’s worth of practical guidance to help counterterrorism officials and practitioners do their jobs more effectively. Rather than undermining U.S. standards and practices, each of these documents was developed with heavy input from the counterterrorism community in Washington. They now serve to promote the U.S. approach overseas. Whether it’s providing investigators, prosecutors, and judges modern tools to handle terrorism cases, while adhering to international human rights standards; or identifying innovative ways to prevent terrorists from crossing long and often porous borders; or best practices for police to engage effectively with local communities so as to reduce rather than aggravate the threat, the GCTF has prioritized the development of tools that have broad applicability.

Altogether, it has produced more than a dozen such guides, often on topics that have recently emerged on the terrorism landscape, affect multiple countries and regions, and where the existing toolkit falls short. For example, the GCTF was the first multilateral group to tackle the issue of radicalization in prisons and how to rehabilitate and reintegrate terrorist prisoners. The standards it developed there are being tailored to help countries around the world manage the return of foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The Philippines, Kenya, Indonesia, and Tunisia are all using GCTF prison tools to ensure the most dangerous violent extremists are behind bars and kept away from the rest of the prison population, while enabling those who pose less of a security risk to help governments better understand the radicalization and recruitment process.

In addition, experts from GCTF members have joined together to produce the first set of tools for governments to use to deal with children involved in terrorist activity, an issue that is of growing concern to countries trying to manage the return of often under-age foreign fighters from Iraq and Syria. The traditional response ia arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate. This is unlikely to be appropriate or helpful for dealing with often disillusioned, impressionable youth who made a big mistake by traveling to the conflict zone but for whom a prison sentence will only make things worse. Before the GCTF took on this issue, governments were left scratching their heads as to what do with these cases. Now, at least, there is a set of common guidelines for them to turn to and training is being made available on this topic at the International Institute of Justice and the Rule of Law established in Malta.

The Forum’s work to develop global best practices for preventing the flow of such fighters to conflict zones set the stage for the Security Council’s resolution on this topic. Similarly, it focused global attention on the need for all countries to crack down on terrorists’ use of “kidnapping for ransom” as a fundraising tactic. The Forum produced guidelines for governments to follow in this area and offers training to support the effort. This was followed by a Security Council condemnation of the practice, once again demonstrating how multilateral work outside the UN can facilitate UN action. If past is prologue, one can expect the Forum’s new “soft target” initiative, developed in the aftermath of last summer’s terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere to facilitate UN-level action.

Practice not just Paper

Another recurring criticism of multilateral bodies is that all the talk only generates lots of paper, namely resolutions and reports, which collect dust and have little practical relevance to the real world. Once again, the GCTF has proven to be an anomaly as the Forum’s best practices and other guidance documents are used as the basis for both bilateral and multilateral training and other capacity-building assistance. This work is taking place in Africa, the Middle East, and South and Southeast Asia, and is sponsored by a diversity of donors, including Australia, Canada, Denmark, the EU, The Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, and the United States. The U.S. Department of Justice uses the Forum’s tools on criminal justice and counterterrorism as the basis of the bilateral counterterrorism assistance it delivers all over the world.

Perhaps the Forum’s most enduring contribution to-date has been the central role it played in incubating three international platforms dedicated to implementation of the GCTF’s core priorities.

For example, two such platforms offer much-needed alternatives to the existing, generally slow-moving multilateral efforts in this field. One is an international Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) center of excellence – Hedayah – that the UAE hosts and heavily subsidizes in Abu Dhabi, and a complementary counterterrorism training center in Malta that was established primarily to service the needs of countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

The CVE Center in Abu Dhabi offers a unique venue in the Arab world to help countries develop and implement national strategies to address radicalization and recruitment to terrorism. The Malta center – the International Institute of Justice and the Rule of Law – has trained more than 2,000 judges, prosecutors, investigators, parliamentarians, and other criminal justice professionals since its launch in June 2014. These new centers are governed by a mix of countries (including those with Muslim-majority populations) and have attracted strong political and financial support from a broad range of countries, including the United States. Although still they are still works in progress, both platforms will lead to better-trained and networked practitioners over time, thus producing security dividends for everyone.

The third “GCTF-inspired” institution, and perhaps its most innovative, is the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund (GCERF). It is the only public-private global fund dedicated to financing and supporting local efforts to prevent radicalization and recruitment to violent extremism. As in so many other areas, the GCTF was ahead of the multilateral curve, with the UN’s Secretary General’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism rolled out nearly 18 months after the GCERF’s Sept. 2014 launch. Since its inception, the Fund has mobilized more than $35 million from 12 donors, with the EU, Qatar, and Switzerland joining the United States as the largest ones. It’s supporting community-led projects in Bangladesh, Mali, and Nigeria, which will engage over 500,000 individuals and indirectly reach a further 1 million people, supporting local organizations that have never before received international donor funds. It will soon start funding projects in Kenya and Kosovo. In addition, an innovative private sector co-financing initiative is currently under preparation.


The GCTF was conceived during the previous administration to reinvigorate U.S. multilateral engagement with international partners. It was clearly a different era. However, it was designed to be a technical body, immune, to the extent possible, from ever-changing global and national political headwinds. It was designed to be a platform for serious-minded counterterrorism practitioners of all stripes to meet, share information and challenges, and devise practical, shared solutions. It is a venue that creates more opportunities for other countries and organizations to share the financial and leadership burden with the US on a range of issues, while reinforcing and amplifying U.S. priorities. Rather than replacing the UN in this field it was designed to lend support. The GCTF’s record should speak for itself: It gets things done. President Trump ought to like that.

Image: Getty/Bryan Thomas