The UN audience could only gasp when Donald Trump made his stormy debut in the United Nations General Assembly in 2017 as president of the United States. This year they laughed in his face.
The gap between the US and the rest of the world has demonstrably widened under the Trump administration, and this phenomenon has consequences. Trump’s rhetoric may have been toned down by his advisers, but his belligerence has deepened and broadened. In the week after his dismissive remarks and display of raw ego — provoking laughter in the General Assembly — talk among government leaders and commentators worldwide has turned to the reality that the US has opted out of constructive leadership.
Now, the question is what the rest of the world will do about it.
Alternating between bragging about his self-proclaimed achievements and lambasting the role of the institution in which he was speaking, Trump went after his usual targets — the Iran nuclear deal, the UN Human Rights Council, the International Criminal Court, even OPEC, among others. He lavished praise on North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, last year’s villain. (He said later that he and Kim “fell in love” in an exchange of letters.)
Then, for good measure, Trump added a dose of boorish bad manners. He arrived late for every important scheduled appearance — so late for his speech in the General Assembly on Sept. 25 that the staff had to fill his spot with Lenín Moreno Garcés, the president of Ecuador. Moreno spoke from a wheelchair, and this abrupt change of precedence required that the podium be hastily reconfigured.
In the Security Council, Trump appeared more than 20 minutes late for a Sept. 26 meeting he was scheduled to chair. Noticeably, some diplomats turned their backs to him as he and his entourage strolled into the chamber. He was also late for a lunch on Sept. 25, for government leaders hosted by Secretary-General António Guterres, where Trump and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada avoided each other for most of the lunch, although their tables were side by side.
By then, Trump had made it abundantly clear where he stood on the vision and values of the UN. In addressing the nations of the world, he declared that America chose to stand alone.
“America is governed by Americans,” he said. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” On the International Criminal Court — a target of John Bolton, the US national security adviser, since its creation in 1998 by an international statute that the US signed but never ratified — Trump called the independent court “an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”
This farewell to globalism, whose practical value to humanity’s future was eloquently defended by Guterres in his opening General Assembly speech last week, disregarded generations of growing American involvement with the rest of the world — more young people studying and living abroad, more US government exchange programs in many fields and that symbolic photograph of John Kerry at the UN in 2016, signing on to the Paris climate agreement with his eye on the future and holding a granddaughter of his in his arm.
Jeffrey Laurenti, who has been analyzing US-UN relations for many years for the United Nations Association of the USA (UNA-USA) and the Century Foundation, is watching a new era in the making. After listening to world leaders speaking at the UN and in off-the-record sessions at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York the past week, he wrote a memo about the US in the new world under Trump for PassBlue:
“There was, I thought, a palpable change in atmosphere from last year to this. Last year there was an air of apprehension about the new US president, a sense of both threat and possibility. Nations’ leaders were hoping still to find the sweet spot behind the bluster where they could reach understandings with the new regime.
“A year later, the illusions are gone, thanks to Washington’s steady stream of disruptive actions and withdrawals, from Iran and Jerusalem to trade wars and refugees, with various U.N. agencies and funds left as collateral roadkill,” he wrote. [On Oct. 1, the Pew Research Center published the results of an international poll taken in August that showed Trump’s ratings across 25 countries remains poor, dragging down the US image to levels that are “much lower than during Barack Obama’s presidency.”]
“For America’s traditional democratic allies, the president’s replacing the unloved realist H.R. McMaster with the detested ideologue John Bolton signaled there will be no reasoning and no shared values,” Laurenti continued. “Trump’s America has gone rogue from the law-based ‘international community’ the democracies have invested so many years and so much political effort in creating. When moderate leaders of five Latin American countries joined Canada’s Justin Trudeau in referring Venezuelan crimes against humanity to the International Criminal Court, they were sending a message to Trump as much as to Nicolas Maduro, maybe even more so.
“At one level, presidential bombast is greeted with derision — and perhaps the U.N. needs more laughter. But at the same time the president chooses a Security Council meeting to accuse the Chinese — the Chinese! — of meddling in U.S. elections, as the Europeans are hammering out guarantees with them and the Russians for Iran in the wake of an American withdrawal from the nuclear agreement. Washington decides to try starving Palestinians into submission by halting its funds for the U.N. refugee program, and Arabs and Europeans work feverishly to line up alternative funding for UNRWA.
“At this General Assembly the outlines of a new policy of containment became visible — this time not containment of Stalin’s USSR, but of Trump’s USA,” Laurenti concluded.
Many speakers in this year’s General Assembly opening debate have been critical, directly or obliquely, of this extraordinary US policy of disengagement. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, spoke of a world in a deep crisis that was not an “interlude” in contemporary history that can safely be ignored. He sees the emergence and spread of a “survival of the fittest” approach, when every country makes and follows its own laws.
“What I am saying is that this path of unilateralism leads us directly to withdrawal and conflict, to widespread confrontation between everyone, to the detriment of all — even, eventually, of those who believe they are the strongest,” Macron said in a passionate speech. He later apologized for pounding the lectern.
Hassan Rouhani, the president of Iran, who is on the receiving end of very harsh charges by Trump, said at a news conference in Tehran after returning from the UN: “What’s important is that today, other than one or two countries, no one is supporting America. It is a historic political isolation that is rare for America.” In his General Assembly speech, Rouhani remarked that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the 2015 nuclear deal stemmed from “a weakness of intellect.”
Trump in his UN speech had blasted Iran as the biggest supporter of terrorism in the world, whose leaders “sow chaos, death, and destruction.”
All five other parties to the Iran agreement designed to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the European Union — have vowed to stay the course, despite threats from Trump and his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, against those who do not follow American-imposed sanctions against the Iranians.
The threats were meant to sound alarming, just as the Europeans, Asians, Africans and Latin Americans are now beginning to exert independence and maintain distance from the US — if that is even possible.
For those in the US who have said Trump’s international tirades should be considered mainly intended for the consumption of American voters, that is no excuse — or not a good-enough reason — for ignoring how the just-ended, mean-spirited performance by Trump and his hard-liners at the UN is playing out around the world, where the US may no longer be trusted and allies may soon be harder to find.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.