Donald Trump, the president of the United States, arrived late for the opening day of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 25. His speech began on an awkward note as he elicited laughter from the world audience for boasting about his accomplishments.
During his speech, he also aggressively rejected the global approach to international problems on which the UN was built and said the US was putting national sovereignty and patriotism first.
Trump was so late — a rare defiance of UN protocol — that the president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno Garcés, was moved one spot forward from No. 3 in the lineup to speak. Trump’s delay was due, according to news reports, to a meeting with the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, during which they signed a trade agreement.
When Trump finally reached the podium in the General Assembly hall, wearing his trademark navy blue suit and red tie, he spoke in an uncharacteristically restrained tone. He adhered to many of his favorite talking points, including Iran, North Korea, trade imbalances and his manifesto of America First.
Mostly, Trump stuck to a central theme of of national sovereignty: that America “will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.”
Trump opened by bragging — aimed at a national audience weeks before midterm elections — saying: “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country. America’s — so true.”
He was interrupted by laughter that rippled across the General Assembly hall.
“Didn’t expect that reaction,” he said. “But that’s O.K.” The unexpected burst of laughter from the audience, packed with heads of governments, seemed momentarily lost on Trump. (To the media later, in the audio below, Trump said that his speech “was meant to get some laughter, but it was great.”)
In content, Trump’s speech fit better as a campaign speech catering to an American audience, rather than to a gathering of world leaders wrestling with global problems. Indeed, on Monday, Sept. 24, after chairing a meeting on the global drug epidemic at the UN, Trump tweeted in capital letters, “REMEMBER THE MIDTERMS.”
He was clearly geared to America’s Nov. 6 Election Day, and possibly hoped to distract attention from other pressing matters in the US, including Brett Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination to become US Supreme Court justice and the fate of his deputy attorney general, Rob Rosenstein.
Trump hit notes he often strikes at his rallies, including American individualism and trade inequities that the country faces internationally. He hailed his successes in building his country’s wealth and took responsibility for the stock market hitting “an all-time high in history, and jobless claims are at a 50-year low.”
He claimed that “African American, Hispanic American and Asian American unemployment have all achieved their lowest levels ever recorded. We’ve added more than 4 million new jobs, including half a million manufacturing jobs.”
He said his administration has passed “the biggest tax cuts and reforms in American history” and that “we’ve started the construction of a major border wall, and we have greatly strengthened border security.”
When he hit the core of his speech, striving to reinforce the power of the US, he tried to convince the global audience of his personal greatness and that of the country he leads, saying: “We are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.”
He didn’t stop, determined to persuade the audience to accept his way of thinking, as if he were cutting a deal: “This is great news for our citizens and for peace-loving people everywhere. We believe that when nations respect the rights of their neighbors, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity, and peace.
“That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.”
While much of his speech last year focused on the threat presented by North Korea and its leader, Kim Jong Un, whom he called “Little Rocket Man,” this year Trump offered more self-congratulation over improved relations with the North Koreans.
“The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction,” he said. “Nuclear testing has stopped. Some military facilities are already being dismantled. Our hostages have been released. And as promised, the remains of our fallen heroes are being returned home to lay at rest in American soil.”
“I spoke before this body last year and warned that the U.N. Human Rights Council had become a grave embarrassment to this institution, shielding egregious human rights abusers while bashing America and its many friends,” he added. “Our Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, laid out a clear agenda for reform, but despite reported and repeated warnings, no action at all was taken. So the United States took the only responsible course: We withdrew from the Human Rights Council, and we will not return until real reform is enacted.”
He also attacked the International Criminal Court. “For similar reasons, the United States will provide no support in recognition to the International Criminal Court,” he said. “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority. The ICC claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness, and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.
“America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
Many of his other talking points echoed his inaugural speech at the UN in 2017. But he didn’t talk this year about climate change, cybersecurity and gender equality, major themes for other countries at the debate. Trump tripped on the date when American sanctions against purchases of Iran’s oil kick in: Nov. 4, not Nov. 5, as he said.
He labeled Iran a “corrupt dictatorship” hiding behind “the false guise of a democracy.” This “murderous regime” is intent on “destabilizing activities.”
This year, Trump again accused Iran of being a “corrupt dictatorship,” claiming: “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations.”
Tomorrow, Trump will lead the UN Security Council meeting on nonproliferation. Or as he calls it, “Iran.”
Ripostes to Trump
The speeches before and after Trump’s electioneering on Sept. 25 at the UN elicited responses that were both direct and subtle. Emmanuel Macron of France, who followed Trump closely in the speaking order, seemed ready to assuage the world’s unease that Trump spreads in his wake.
Macron, as the first European speaker at the UNGA, seemed to give a point by point rebuttal to Trump, with an ode to multilateralism. His passion for defending global cooperation and the rule of law was noted at a later press briefing by Macron, when he said he owed the dais in the General Assembly hall an apology, for all the pounding it took. (See a clip of his briefing in the video below.)
“I think that we’re seeing a crisis of the very foundations of today’s world,” Macron said. “We’re losing our benchmarks and our modes of functioning.”
He called for development of a new model, and new world balance, in a move from a global instability characterized by multicenters of power by striking new forms of international cooperation. Macron also said that he would not pursue significant deals with countries that were not in the Paris climate accord. The only countries that are not party to the agreement are the US and Syria.
“Only collective action allows for the upholding of the sovereignty and equality of the people in whose name we take action,” Macron said. ‘This is the reason we must take action against climate, demographic and digital challenges. No one alone can tackle these.”
Marking the centenary of the birth of Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s president, Cyril Ramaphosa,used the anniversary to call for UN reforms, encouraging leaders to ensure that the UN meets the expectations of those who most need it. South Africa will have a seat on the UN Security Council for the 2019-2020 term. “To billions across the world, the UN is the most powerful instrument we possess to achieve a more equal, more humane and more inclusive world,” Ramaphosa said.
Like Macron, Ramaphosa drew attention to climate change, gender inequality and cybersecurity as crucial areas that can lead to the success of the UN’s mandate. He also expressed his support for those countries still adhering to the Iran nuclear deal, “one of the most important breakthroughs in international diplomacy in recent times.”
Echoing many of the speakers of the day, the South African president also called for increased cooperation between the African Union and the UN in addressing the conflicts and vulnerabilities facing the African Union, as it strives to ensure the security and prosperity of the continent.
Pan-seared wagyu filet of beef: António Guterres’s luncheon for world leaders
It’s an annual ritual, the lunch hosted by the UN secretary-general. Last year, it was Guterres’s first time holding such a proper sit-down meal for so many potentially picky eaters. Despite the UN’s stuffy protocols, one gaffe stood out in 2017: Trump, a teetotaler, accidentally sipping a glass of wine that had been placed at his table setting.
This year, the media were informed, watching from a riser in the back of the room as the procession of VIPs flowed in, Trump’s beverage was specially poured: Diet Coke.
Croatia’s president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, was among the first heads of state to arrive to the luncheon in the UN Delegates Lounge, where she had an extended conversation with the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who brought her three-month-old baby, Neve, to the General Assembly chamber on Sept. 24.
At the very-important table in the Delegates Lounge: Guterres next to Trump, then Italian Prime Minister Guiseppe Conte (an empty chair for Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda), South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, Colombian President Ivan Duque, Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto, Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. (An additional leader at the table could not be immediately identified.)
The American delegation included Trump, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley — each seated separately. On Haley’s right sat the president of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko; Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudea, was parked one table from Trump’s but was not spotted saying hello to him. The Saudi foreign minister, Adel bin Ahmed Al-Jubeir, greeted Trump, while Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, chatted with Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wazed.
When Trump first arrived, the cameras clicking wildly, he locked eyes with Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic, whom he famously pushed aside at the NATO summit last year. Before everyone sat down for the toasts by Guterres and Trump, the head of the UN refugee agency for Palestine (Unrwa), Pierre Krahenbuhl, stood near Trump’s table, seemingly to acknowledge him but holding off.
France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, was holding a press conference when the lunch started, while other heads of state arrived late, including Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras — tieless — of Greece. Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, mingled in the back of the room, huddling with Egypt’s foreign minister, Sameh Shoukry, but no made no gesture to Trump to say hello. (Lavrov chatted briefly with some of the media.)
What did the world’s most powerful leaders eat? To start, cured gravlax carpaccio over a bed of baby arugula, seasoned with pink peppercorns and toasted pepita peppers. The main course: beef filet with potatoes and asparagus. Guests were served Italian white wine, an Argentinian red blend and, like last year, a 40-year-old Portuguese port for dessert, which consisted of a chocolate raspberry dome, a chocolate mousse and a chocolate dacquoise.
Although Trump attracted the spotlight, it was Guterres’s toast that warmed the large room of VIPs, saying: “Mr. President, President Trump, you are a proud American. I am, of course, beneath the cover of Secretary-General of the United Nations, a proud Portuguese — proud of my country and proud of its people.
“And each one of you, distinguished Heads of State and Government, you are proud of your countries, of your peoples, of your culture, of your contribution to world civilization. . . .
“But we are also, all of us, citizens of the world, and we are also united in a cosmopolitan way by a common cause: the wellbeing of humanity. And so, allow me please, to raise my glass, first of all to pay tribute to our hosts — President Trump, the American people, the City of New York, and to pay tribute to all of you, wishing the best in peace and prosperity for all countries in the world. Cheers!”
Trump’s toast stood out for its lack of warmth, using the moment to prove, once more, his skills at campaigning, remarking, in part: “A lot of terrific things are happening. We covered, as you know during my speech, North Korea. Last year my speech was somewhat different on North Korea. Tremendous progress has been made and I think you’re going to see on that one, as the expression goes: who knows.
“I think you’re going to see a very very great outcome. I hope that eventually some of the other countries we have conflict with — if not more like trade conflict, other types of conflict — a lot of those problems will disappear, I think, by next year.”
Which means that by next September, according to Trump, the wars in Syria and Yemen will have vanished. — DULCIE LEIMBACH
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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.