U.S. President Donald Trump used his second annual address to the U.N. General Assembly to unleash his nationalist, anti-globalist themes while reducing the world’s leading international organization and everything it represents to “an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”
Trump’s triumphant boasts about America’s economic and military might and his total dismissal of the crucial role that international organizations play in underpinning the Western-led international order was met with blank stares and scornful, mocking laughter from some of the other world leaders gathered at the United Nations headquarters in New York.
“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” he declared in a 34-minute speech. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
All 193 member nations had the opportunity to address the General Assembly, but only 133 world leaders signed up to attend — up from 114 leaders last year. A minute’s silence was held to honor the late U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, one of the world’s most celebrated diplomats, who died last month in the Swiss capital Bern at the age of 80.
Trump’s speech focused attention on his administration’s isolationist policies. By contrast, the General Assembly’s president, María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, issued a call for multilateralism and the benefits of shared work towards sustainable development and equality for all. She praised the U.N.’s contribution to humanity and its principles that underpin international cooperation.
“The reality is that the work of the United Nations is as relevant today as it was 73 years ago,” said Espinosa Garcés, a former foreign minister of Ecuador. “Multilateralism stands alone as the only viable response to the global problems that we are faced with. To undermine multilateralism, or to cast a doubt upon its merits, will only lead to instability and division, to mistrust and polarization.”
The challenges addressed in @UN Charter have evolved. Threats of #climatechange, erosion of biodiversity, human trafficking, environmental pollution, large displacements of both migrants &refugees, terrorism & ethnic conflicts are now at the top of our agenda. #UNGA #UN4All pic.twitter.com/ygkLmb33JY
— UN GA President (@UN_PGA) September 25, 2018
A litany of boasts
Trump offered a boastful self-assessment of his first 20 months as president, citing as accomplishments his summit meeting in June with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and the United States’ withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.
It was a 180-degree reversal from his characterization of Kim last year as a crazy mass murderer. North Korea’s “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump had said.
This time, Trump had a completely different take on Kim, who did not attend the world gathering.
Kim was virtually alone in receiving praise from Trump, who overlooked the U.N.-approved sanctions that have been punishing North Korea because of its nuclear program, cyber attacks, human rights violations and money laundering. The United States, European Union, Japan and South Korea have all imposed the sanctions.
“I would like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and the steps he has taken, though much work remains to be done,” Trump said of his summit with Kim — which is aimed at establishing steps towards denuclearization, peace on the Korean Peninsula and a withdrawal of the international sanctions weighing on North Korea’s moribund economy.
The summit was facilitated by South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s diplomacy.
Trump said America is “more powerful than it has ever been before.” In less than two years, he asserted, the Trump administration has “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
He was not the only populist leader on hand in New York. Also attending the General Assembly were Premier Giuseppe Conte of Italy and President Andrzej Duda of Poland, and the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria.
Alina Polyakova, a foreign policy fellow at the Washington-based Brookings Institution think tank, noted that Trump failed to mention Russia in his speech. She said this was “interesting since the administration has taken 31 policy actions on Russia” ranging from economic sanctions and expulsions of intelligence officers to military actions and indictments in response to election meddling and cyberattacks.
Some international organizations and nations are heavily invested in promoting election assistance as a key plank of Western democracies’ international development. Trump rejects globalism even though it has traditionally been a force by the United States and others to spread democracy abroad.
Many of Trump’s critics view his attacks on American institutions as an existential fight for the integrity of U.S. self-rule. The absence of any comments about Russia contrasted with the mounting evidence, including U.S. intelligence, that Russian computer hackers interfered in the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
That evidence has led to multi-pronged investigations into Trump’s campaign focused on security concerns with the electoral process and fears that a foreign power could mold public opinion or break into election computer systems to sway the outcome of voting.
Just moments after he began speaking, the U.N.’s main assembly hall registered with laughter and seeming acknowledgement that the president was performing like the reality TV star he was not long ago.
Trump, surprised by the laughs, joked, “Didn’t expect that reaction but that’s okay.” A loud round of laughter erupted.
Trump alienated the most staunch U.S. allies at the Group of Seven meeting at Canada in June and again at the NATO summit meeting at Brussels in July.
He questioned the need for the United Nations, European Union, North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and World Trade Organization, or WTO, prompting some to decry that the biggest and most important international organizations — and the international order and achievements they represent — are “under attack.”
Because of the wide repercussions for the global economy, a U.S. withdrawal from the WTO would eclipse even the Trump administration’s previous withdrawals from the U.N. Human Rights Council, the U.N. cultural and educational agency known as UNESCO and the 2015 Paris Agreement to address climate change.
He has lashed out at the International Criminal Court, or ICC, based at The Hague, Netherlands, and recently proposed Global Compact on Migration, and said the United States will not provide more than than 25 percent of the U.N. peacekeeping budget, part of his frequent needling to get other nations to pay more for development, aid and security around the world.
He planned to chair a meeting the next day of the U.N. Security Council, the world body’s most powerful arm, which can authorize military intervention and economic sanctions. The United States holds the monthly rotating presidency of the 15-nation council, and Trump planned to use his appearance to rally support for his administration’s hard-line stance against the Iran nuclear deal.
But the Security Council approved the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, as the deal is known and lifted sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Now the deal is in serious doubt with the reimposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran as of August 7.
Trump’s decision to renege on it raised the pressure on Iran’s struggling economy and ruling regime, and inflamed U.S.-European tensions.
“America is governed by Americans,” Trump told the General Assembly. “Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.”
Secretary-General @antonioguterres tells world leaders: Trust is at a breaking point. Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march. #UNGA pic.twitter.com/EwUysVUdAM
— UN Spokesperson (@UN_Spokesperson) September 25, 2018
Defense of globalism
U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres had a cautionary message for world leaders in his opening address concerning the rise of political polarization and populist leaders. He warned that some nations suffer from “trust deficit disorder,” and the solution is to collaborate on global challenges.
Along with climate change, poverty and hunger, the biggest challenges include the Syrian civil war and Yemen’s war. Both wars have given rise to the world’s worst humanitarian crises, marked by mass migration, refugee pressures and widespread shortages of food and medicine. In Africa, major conflicts and crises are simmering in Central African Republic, Congo, Libya, Mali and South Sudan.
“Democratic principles are under siege,” Guterres said. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented. Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward. Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”
Guterres said no challenge is more pressing than Earth’s rising temperatures. “Climate change is moving faster than we are,” he said. “If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change.”
There also are risks from new technologies such as artificial intelligence, biotech and blockchain technology, he said, adding that “the weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern.”
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi said “unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise” but the United Nations is the symbol of multilateralism. Ignoring the U.N.’s dire warnings of human rights violations against the ethnic Muslim Uighurs in China’s western Xinjiang province, Wang urged the world to “stand united under the umbrella of multilateralism, uphold the central role of the U.N. in international affairs, and provide more predictability and stability in this turbulent world.”
France’s President Emmanuel Macron, whose political rise has made him a galvanizing figure for globalism, took on the political rise of populist-fueled self-interest, declaring that “nationalism always leads to defeat.” The assembly cheered loudly for his defense of global cooperation.
“Friends, I know you may be tired of multilateralism. I also know that the world is flooded with information, and one becomes indifferent. It all starts to look like a big show,” he said. “Please, don’t get used to it, don’t become indifferent. Do not accept the erosion of multilateralism. Don’t accept our history unraveling. I’m not getting used to this, and I’m not turning my head.”
Brazil’s President Michel Temer also spoke of a planet “clouded by isolationist forces” in which “old forms of intolerance are being rekindled.” He said that with “isolationism, intolerance, unilateralism — we must respond to each of these different trends with the very best of our peoples.”