The World Comes to the U.N.—but the U.S. Is Largely Missing
Trump to skip climate summit to focus on his Christian base.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s second-annual U.N. Brief, in which, for one week only, we will be your guides through the deluge of summitry and high-level diplomacy at the 74th session of the U.N. General Assembly debate. To get our daily updates directly in your inbox next week, please sign up here.
Previewing the 74th U.N. General Assembly
Presidents, prime ministers, and other top delegates from more than 190 countries will convene on Turtle Bay for a week of midtown Manhattan gridlock and speeches, six summits, approximately 360 side events, and about 50 meetings on climate change alone.
This year’s session comes at a time of mounting U.S. concerns over Chinese influence at the U.N., fears of a brewing military showdown in the Middle East, the breakdown in U.S. talks with the Taliban, renewed tension between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan over Kashmir, and disarray in the State Department’s Bureau of International Organization Affairs, which oversees U.S. relations with the United Nations.
This is the year that the rest of the liberal order tries to imagine life without U.S. leadership. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has framed the General Assembly session around a series of high-level meeting addressing climate change, universal health care, nuclear nonproliferation, and sustainable development—none of which holds much interest for U.S. President Donald Trump. “The biggest challenge that leaders and institutions face is to show people we care—and to mobilize solutions that respond to people’s anxieties with answers,” Guterres told reporters earlier this week. “The upcoming high-level week is designed to do precisely that.”
Monday’s climate summit will draw several A-list world leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But Trump isn’t coming. Instead, he has organized his own meeting in the middle of the climate summit that will address the persecution of religious minorities, an issue that resonates powerfully with Trump’s Christian base. He will be introduced by Vice President Mike Pence, an evangelical Christian who has led the administration’s effort to defend the cause of Christian minorities in the Middle East and elsewhere, sometimes at the expense of other minorities. Key European allies, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, will not attend. Trump is also expected to seek to bolster Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s claim to the country’s presidency.
Trump will jet off this weekend to Houston, where the city’s Indian diaspora is hosting a massive welcome event for the Indian prime minister, dubbed “Howdy Modi.” So far, the event has not been canceled despite massive flooding. Trump will then head back to New York on Sunday, where he is expected to try to rally U.N. support for a tough response to Iran’s alleged role in a drone and missile attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil installations.
The United States and Saudi Arabia can count on some degree of sympathy from key allies that suspect Iranian agents played a role in the attack, despite claims by Yemen’s Houthis that they were responsible, because the Yemeni rebels lack the technical sophistication to have carried it out. But Britain, France, and Germany oppose Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign on Iran, on the grounds that it won’t bring Tehran to its knees and is instead heightening tensions and instability in the region. Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has received a cool reception from human rights groups, including Human Rights Watch, which urged attendees at a Monday event at the New York Public Library sponsored by the U.N. Office of the Secretary General’s Envoy on Youth and Mohammed bin Salman’s Misk Global Forum charity, not to come. The event—which is a partnership between Mohammed bin Salman’s foundation and the U.N.—aims to promote youth entrepreneurship and sustainable development.
Any hope of a high-level handshake between Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani seems unlikely. Trump on Friday announced plans to slap new sanctions on Iran’s national bank, striking “at the highest level” of the Iranian government. Earlier this week, the State Department had reportedly delayed the issuance of visas to Rouhani’s delegation, forcing the U.N. to intervene in an attempt to resolve the dispute. In the end, Washington granted the visas, and Zarif is scheduled to arrive in New York on Friday. Rouhani will fly into New York on Monday.
Who isn’t coming to New York this week is just as significant as who is. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a familiar face and voice at previous U.N. summits, canceled his appearance later next week as he fights for his political life in Israel, where an election appeared to give the opposition Blue and White party a slight edge over Netanyahu’s Likud. Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin are also expected to pass on attending, as is North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
Merkel is really only coming to participate in summits on climate change and sustainable development. She will attend the opening of the General Assembly session, but she will leave it to Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to deliver Germany’s address to the General Assembly.
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro said he will not come—but he has been known to change his mind. Guaidó, Venezuela’s opposition leader who is recognized by the United States and some 50 other countries as the country’s legitimate leader, is also weighing a trip to the United Nations. But Guterres has ruled out a meeting with Guaidó, who is not recognized by the U.N. as Venezuela’s leader. North Korea, which was represented last year by Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho, has downgraded its representation to ambassadorial level. The decision appears to underscore a lack of interest in follow-up talks with U.S. Secretary of State Pompeo, preferring one-on-one summits between Trump and Kim.
In another sign of the Trump administration’s estrangement from key allies, France and Germany will host a meeting of its Alliance of Multilateralism, which will seek to preserve the international rule of law, defend international treaties, and promote liberal values such as freedom of the press. Most countries were invited, and key U.S. allies in Europe, Latin America, and Asia, including Japan and South Korea, are expected to attend, while China and Russia have not responded to invitations. Diplomats said Japan and other countries were initially a bit hesitant about joining the alliance, fearing it would be perceived as confrontational by the White House. But France and Germany have sought to allay Japan’s concerns by trying to coax Washington into participating in the alliance by highlighting its plans to discuss a cybersecurity initiative that appeals to the United States.
That’s it for our quick preview today. Starting Monday morning, you can receive the full U.N. Brief directly in your inboxes—we’ll have daily news, scoops, and analysis, but also profiles of interesting attendees, a daily quiz, charts, and historical tidbits. Once again: Get your colleagues and friends to sign up here.
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch