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Trump Blows Up the UN, Metaphorically Speaking


Donald Trump entering the UN to speak for the first time as president at the annual opening of the General Assembly. He delivered on his penchant for use of nationalistic language. RICK BAJORNAS/ UN PHOTO

Can a rebuttal happen before an event occurs?

United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres took pre-emptive strikes against President Donald Trump in his speech at the opening session of the 72nd General Assembly, on Sept. 19, 2017. Rumors were rampant that Trump would deliver a strongly nationalistic speech, reportedly written by Stephen Miller, author of Trump’s more bombastic and nationalist screeds, including the inauguration speech on Jan. 20.

Indeed, at the UN, Trump’s speech on Sept. 19 attempted to disrupt and possibly combust the cooperative worldview of the UN. But before he took the podium in the General Assembly Hall, Guterres preceded him by about a half hour, giving him ample opportunity to promote a multilateral philosophy based on the rule of law, embedded with pointed remarks toward Trump.

“Societies are fragmented. Political discourse is polarized,” Guterres said. “Trust within and among countries is being driven down by those who demonize and divide.”

Guterres spoke on seven points: the nuclear threat posed by North Korea, terrorism, global unresolved conflicts, climate change, equality, technology and migration. In almost each point, his remarks could have been perceived as direct hits on Trump.

On climate change, for example, Guterres said: “We should not link any single weather event with climate change. But scientists are clear that such extreme weather is precisely what their models predict will be the new normal of a warming world.”

Regarding the peril on nuclear brinkmanship between the US and North Korea, Guterres said, as another example: “When tensions rise, so does the chance of miscalculation. Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings. . . . We must not sleepwalk our way into war.”

Brazil is traditionally the first head of state to speak at the opening debate, and President Michel Temer continued both Guterres’s plea for multilateralism and provided dignified rebuttals against nationalism, xenophobia and racism.

“In the world now, with its uncertainty, we need more negotiating, not less, more of the multilateral system, not less,” Temer said. “We need the UN more now, a UN that is increasingly legitimate. It’s imperative to reform the UN, expand the United Nations Security Council to align to the reality of the 21st century. . . We need to reject exasperated forms of nationalism.”

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Soon, Trump delivered on the rumors that he would speak about nationalism and topped even that. The Trump who used tepid language in yesterday’s UN reform meeting was replaced today with bold, occasionally horrifying language prioritizing national self-interest and the role that UN member states can have in protecting an individual nation’s sovereignty, security and prosperity.

“The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based,” he said. “They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries.”

Trump repeated calls for patriotism, a love of one’s country, while he questioned the investment, both in economic and human capital, the US has made in helping the UN to reach its potential.

A sample: “If we desire to lift up our citizens, if we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfill our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests, and their futures. We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea. . . . “

Trump also delivered his speech in more relaxed language than heads of states usually use in formal settings. He repeated an Elton John reference, taunting North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by calling him Rocket Man. Trump reverted to one of his favorite words — “loser” — to describe those he opposes, this time vowing to “crush the loser terrorists.” He vowed to “totally destroy” North Korea and said that Kim was on a suicide mission.

He verbally attacked Iran, Syria, Venezuela, Cuba and North Korea — threatening all-out war against the last country. He used military-style phrasing, pitting bad guys against the good guys. He excoriated socialism and cheered capitalism, expressed loathing for the UN Human Rights Council.

“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he said. “When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.”

He fell into his patriotism theme repeatedly; this one referring to the UN:

“The true question for the United Nations today, for people all over the world who hope for better lives for themselves and their children, is a basic one: Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?”

Trump’s messaging was so disturbing for some heads of state that the first woman to speak after him, Doris Lutheard, president of Switzerland, broke from her text to counter Trump’s plea for isolationist patriotism. She declared, in English:

“The purpose of the UN [is] to maintain international peace and security . . . collective, not one alone. Because I am a patriot. We need a strong multilateral system. We need a strong United Nations.” Leuthard also took aim at Trump’s plea for nationalistic prosperity, adding: “Switzerland is fully invested in the United Nations. To each his own is not a viable option.” (Leuthard then resumed her text, in French.)

While Trump disregarded protocol in language and approach, one person in his delegation seemed to be aware of the welcoming role that the host country to the UN, America, is supposed to play.

As the US delegation exited — after Trump had left the hall — followed by Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the UN; National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster; and Secretary of Treasury Steve Mnuchin — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke formation to shake Guterres’s hand.

It was a moment of grace sorely missing from the Trump rant that had left the General Assembly Hall stunned if not enraged. A 10-minute break was called for the world’s leaders to gather their wits. — LAURA KIRKPATRICK

France: Not long after Trump finished, Emmanuel Macron, president of France, took his turn at the podium in the General Assembly, leaning on formulaic language to present his country’s agenda, mostly centered on multilateralism, preventing war and climate change. He then held a media briefing to a roomful of mostly French journalists. Pressed on his relationship with Trump, especially in response to his speech, Macron replied, “We have many views that align.”

The third time he was pressed on Trump, Macron finally hinted at pressures, saying: “President Trump and I respect each other but we have disagreements. We each have own beliefs. History will judge us on Iran, on North Korea and on climate.”

Macron also invoked the Vegas defense when asked about his Monday one-on-one meeting with Trump, saying, “It’s important to not express publicly what goes on in our bilateral meetings.”

Climate was the one area where Macron openly criticized Trump. Macron called the US departure from the Paris  Agreement a “mistake.” He announced he would be convening a multilateral summit in December in Paris, to expand the foundations laid by the Paris Agreement two years ago. On Iran, North Korea and other global conflicts, Macron followed a UN script, expressing the need for diplomacy and a political solution and the belief that a military solution is untenable.

He also declared that the Iran nuclear deal was not negotiable.

For a head of state who has been in office less than six months, Macron has quickly adopted the UN rheotoric and the diplomatic dodge. On North Korea, he said, for example, “Multilateralism doesn’t exclude resorting to war, multilateralism provides a framework for military intervention, and that should be in diplomatic road map.”

When asked why he spoke recently to CNN rather than French media while in New York, Macron replied, “I have spoken to French media, when I see how much [attention is paid to] what I say, what I don’t say, feels very narcissistic to me.” –– LAURA KIRKPATRICK

Nigeria: President Muhammadu Buhari, sickly and thin, spoke seventh on the list of countries, in between Slovakia and the Czech Republic and after Trump’s diatribe. To say that Buhari, whose country is the most populous in Africa, was mellow and diplomatic is an understatement. He spoke about the progress of Africa — expanding rule of law, upholding democracies — citing Gambia and the Ivory Coast as recent triumphs in democratic electoral transitions (and Nigeria’s in 2015) in the continent. Buhari also touched on global affairs, noting the “suffering” that Palestinians continue to endure; the “desperate human rights” situations in Yemen and Rakhine State in Myanmar; and proposed sending a UN delegation to East Asia to begin talks with North Korea. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Venezuela: The country’s foreign minister, Jorge Arreaza, who speaks impeccable English, spoke to media after Trump’s speech, in which Trump said, among other jabs: “The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed. This situation is completely unacceptable and we cannot stand by and watch.” Angry, Arreaza said his country was “surprised” by the words of Trump, who “speaks about war, destroying countries” and setting up “blockades.” The US is a country, he added, “that violates human rights around the world” and that while Trump was “making money” around the world, Venezuela had held 22 elections. What we heard, he added, “is sad for the world” — and “we do not accept threats from Trump.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Israel: Taking his cues from Trump’s speech in the morning, Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel, began by promoting business investment in his country; said the “epicenter of anti-Semitism has been here at the UN”; and of the Iran nuclear deal: “Change it or cancel it. Fix it or nix it.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Mali: President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta, whose country has been dragging out implementation of the Algiers peace accord between the government and opposition groups, said that his government has restored security in central Mali. That represents, he added, an important step for the country, which seems to be moving away from stability rather than toward it. He thanked the UN men and women working in Mali — through the UN peacekeeping mission — acknowledging the dangers confronting peacekeepers in the country, which has the dubious achievement of claiming the highest death toll of UN troops in the world in the last few years. Keïta said the new G5 Sahel force, blessed by the UN Security Council, led by France and involving five regional countries, including Mali, will help defend “our common territory” in a region beset with transnational crime and terrorism. Yet many observers inside and outside the region are questioning the purpose of more militarization in this broad swath of Francophone West Africa, given that the current presence of European troops and UN peacekeepers has not deterred violence by terrorists and most ordinary people in the area have no access to electricity, schools and piped water. — DULCIE LEIMBACH

Wining and dining with Secretary-General Guterres

A pool report covered Guterre’s luncheon, part of the regular pageantry of the opening days of the General Assembly. Here are snippets:

“A U.N. security detail emerged ahead of U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who made his way to the main table in the center of the delegate’s lounge. Shortly after, Gen. John Kelly, the U.S. president’s chief of staff, Rex Tillerson, the U.S. Secretary of State and Jeffery Feltman, the U.N. Undersecretary General for Political Affairs, and the most senior American national at the United Nations, entered ahead of President Donald Trump, who was trailed by his U.N. envoy, Nikki Haley.

Trump made his way through the crowd, making small talk and shaking hands. He greeted various leaders, including Erna Solberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, King Abdullah II and Prime Minister Abe. Nikki Haley, at a table next to the President’s, sat between Iraq’s prime minister Haidar Al-Abadi and Australia’s foreign minister, Julie Bishop. Tillerson said at a separate table alongside other foreign dignitaries, including Oman’s Foreign Minister Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah.

Secretary-General Guterres toasting world leaders at his luncheon, Sept. 19, 2017. The main course was pan-seared Wagyu beef tenderloin steak with Yukon-gold fondant potatoes, roasted asparagus and baby carrots. LI MUZI/POOL PHOTO

Trump sat down at the main table with President Abe at his right and the U.N. Secretary General at his left. Also seated at the main table, were King Abdullah II, South Korean President Moon, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, and Lithuania President Dalia Grybauskaite.”

The report described a Trumpian moment at the luncheon: “Trump took his glass of [California] Cabernet to the podium and gave a toast. After the toast, he returned to his seat, took a sip, grimaced and motioned to someone to remove it. What appeared to be a soft drink with ice was brought to his table.” — DULCIE LEIMBACH

The White Helmets visit the German mission

The German mission to the UN held a discussion with Khalid Khateer, a media officer with the White Helmets, also known as the Syria Civil Defense civilian-rescue mission. Khateer, a native from Aleppo, left high school when the aerial bombing started in his country and joined the organization.

“Can you imagine if you live in a city and you don’t know when an airstrike will target your home?,” he asked. “Can you imagine that? Now the people inside Syria are only dreaming to not see aircraft. They are always afraid of bombing.”

Khateer expressed frustration with the lack of attention Syria has gotten from the international community and the lack of action on behalf of the Syrian people, especially recently.

“Everyone knows what the situation is in Syria,” he said. “But no one wants to do anything about it. The Syrian people feel they are alone, and no one wants to stop the massacres.”

In addition to rescuing civilians caught in the violence, the White Helmets are also documenting war crimes committed by the Assad regime and ISIL.

“We have submitted our documentation to several international organizations and governments that are friends of the Syrian people,” Khateer said. “But so far, we don’t feel that the international community has acted adequately to stop the crimes being committed against the Syrian people.”

A new UN body to prepare evidence for the prosecution of war crimes committed in Syria is in the works. It is unclear whether the team working on collecting evidence will use the documents gathered by the White Helmets. — KACIE CANDELA

‘Clean cut surgery’: Innovations for maternal health

As world leaders began trading barbs on the stage of the 72nd General Assembly, events held away from the UN on Sept. 19 highlighted other global development issues, including meeting the organization’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals. That can require innovations in maternal health care in poor countries.

“Accelerating Change in Maternal and Newborn Health: The Role of Surgical Innovations to Catalyze Change,” a panel discussion sponsored by Jhpiego, Safe Surgery 2020, the GE Foundation and the G4 Alliance addressed how safe surgery innovations can help reach the lofty SDG 3.1 of reducing the global maternal mortality ratio to less than 70 per 100,000 live births by 2030.

The program — promoted through the #SafeSurgery hashtag on social media — noted that more than 300,000 women will die this year from preventable conditions during pregnancy but that access to “timely and appropriate surgical care” could prevent more than a third of these deaths.

An important innovation for preventing maternal deaths was outlined by Kris Torgenson, former secretary general of Doctors Without Borders and now the chief executive of the Lifebox Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to safe surgery in low-resource countries.

Noting that 15 to 18 percent of C-sections have led to potentially deadly infections on the surgery site, she said her organization’s “clean cut” initiative will help such patients by addressing the operating room’s standards for sterile procedures.

Safe surgery, Torgenson explained, is not always about employing the most current technical advantage, “but finding a way to implement what we already know works.”

Yet, as at least one audience member pointed out, while the panel itself included physicians, surgeons and public health professionals, there were no obstetricians-gynecologists, midwives or pediatricians represented. Dr. John Meara, a panelist and director of the Program in Global Surgery and Social Change at Harvard Medical School, offered his apologies on behalf of the university. — LORI SILBERMAN BRAUNER

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

Laura E. Kirkpatrick is an editor, writer and researcher who has covered international, national and civic social enterprise and development, women’s issues and the media for Gannett Publications, ESPN and other media outlets. Based in Buffalo, N.Y., Kirkpatrick wrote PassBlue’s most popular article in 2015, “In New York State, a City Willing to Settle Refugees the Right Way”; in 2017, her story on sexual harassment at the UN was also among the top 5 for the year. Kirkpatrick also manages social media and audience development for PassBlue. She received a New Media Editorial Fellowship from the Columbia University Graduate School of Business and has a graduate degree in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in English from Hamilton College.

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