Trump Takes Center Stage at U.N. Summit
The U.S. president’s third UNGA address could be more toned down than before.
Welcome to U.N. Brief, Foreign Policy’s special pop-up newsletter with reporting and analysis from the 74th U.N. General Assembly in New York. All week, we’re bringing you daily news, analysis, infographics, and profiles of some of the most influential attendees.
What’s on tap for today: European leaders back U.S. claims that Iran attacked Saudi Arabia, Trump gives his third speech to the U.N. General Assembly, the Trump administration takes its anti-abortion campaign to Turtle Bay, new efforts in Congress to quell China’s rising clout in the U.N., and more.
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How Will Trump’s UNGA Speech Measure Up?
Today marks the opening of the annual General Assembly debate, drawing more than 190 world leaders and ministers in their finest national costumes to a week of speeches, bilats, and press conferences. The event opens with addresses by U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres and new General Assembly President Tijjani Muhammad-Bande.
It will be headlined by a quartet of nationalist strongmen, starting with Brazil’s President Jair Bolsanaro, who is likely to mount a defense of his policies in the Amazon rainforest, and U.S. President Donald Trump, who is likely to use his speech to blast Iran, and reiterate his “America First” message. They will be followed by Egyptian President Abdel el-Sisi, the former Egyptian intelligence chief who came to power in June 2014 after a coup ousted the former president. Trump has praised Sisi as a “great president” and his own “favorite dictator.” And then to the stage comes Turkey’s president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Will Trump’s speech make waves? In 2017, Trump threatened all-out war with the “Rocket Man” in North Korea. In 2018, he drew laughter from the audience when he boasted of how strong he had made America. In 2019, there just might be a return to normalcy, some experts say. Trump needs to bring new U.N. allies to his corner to advance his agendas on Iran, North Korea, and Venezuela. This might mean a more tempered and toned-down speech than we’ve seen before.
“It seems to me that the president is a little more circumspect about what tools he has at his disposal and what he needs allies to do and what he wants to do unilaterally,” said Jon Alterman, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
Straying from the script. Trump has already strayed from the script by attending the U.N. Climate Action summit on Monday. Trump, a climate-science skeptic who withdrew the United States from the 2015 Paris climate agreement after entering office, had planned to skip the summit.
Alterman said now that Iran is testing Trump’s hardline approach, his most promising option could be to marshall more support at the United Nations to manage Iran’s aggression. “Iran is a hard problem, but frankly it’s precisely the kind of problem that the United Nations was created to address. The president has an opportunity, especially in his bilateral meetings … to begin addressing them,” he said.
In the 2006 U.N. General Assembly, which foreign leader in his speech called President George W. Bush “the devil” and said the place where Bush stood to give his U.N. speech “smells of sulfur still today”?
A) North Korea’s Kim Jong Il
B) The Gambia’s Yahya Jammeh
C) Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez
D) Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad
E) Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe
Scroll down for the answer.
What We’re Following
The other big wigs speaking today. The Turkish President, Recep Tayyip Erdogan; the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh bin Hamad Al Thani; Jordan’s King Abdullah II; South Korean President Moon Jae-in; and French President Emmanuel Macron will speak during the first half of the day. Canada’s Justin Trudeau (facing a political scandal); Poland’s President Andrzej Duda; and Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will speak during the afternoon session. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, making his first (and possibly last?) appearance at the general debate, is listed as the 21st and final speaker.
Overshadowed. It will be hard for any of them to top 16-year-old Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, who delivered a blistering speech to world leaders at the U.N. climate action summit on Monday to a captivated and quiet audience. “You have stolen my dreams and my childhood with your empty words,” she said. “We are in the beginning of a mass extinction and all you can talk about is money and fairy tales of eternal economic growth. How dare you.”
What Else Is on Trump’s Schedule?
A bilateral meeting with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson
A bilateral meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi
A luncheon hosted by U.N. Secretary General António Guterres
A meeting with the president of the U.N. General Assembly, María Fernanda Espinosa
A bilateral meeting with Iraqi President Barham Salih
An evening diplomatic reception at the Lotte New York Palace Hotel.
Trump Gets a Break on Iran
The leaders of Britain, France and Germany stepped off the fence and issued a joint statement on Monday accusing Iran of carrying out the Sept. 14 strikes against Saudi oil facilities. The United States and Saudi Arabia blame Iran for the strike, despite Yemen’s Iran-backed rebel Houthis claiming responsibility. The Europeans had previously dismissed the Houthi claim, but had been reluctant to blame Iran, saying for days that they needed to await the conclusion of investigations by Iran and the United Nations. “It is clear to us that Iran bears responsibility for this attack. There is no other plausible explanation,” the statement read.
Iran’s FM responds. Speaking at a breakfast at Tehran’s U.N. mission, Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told a group of reporters that Iran had played no role in the attacks. “If Iran were behind this attack nothing would have been left of this refinery,” he said. “Why do you look for suspects? The Yeminis have taken the responsibility for it and they have every reason to attack, to retaliate and at least they retaliate against a refinery without killing a single person.” In contrast, Zarif said, the U.S.-backed Saudi Arabian military coalition has wreaked untold suffering in Yemen during its war on Houthi separatists. “If we want to start a blame game, there is a lot of blame to go around,” he said.
Boris bungles? Trump on Monday reacted positively to the idea of a new Iran deal, a prospect raised by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. “Whatever your objections to the old nuclear deal with Iran, it’s time now to move forward and do a new deal,” Johnson told Sky News. “I respect Boris a lot and I am not surprised at all that he was the first one to come out and say that,” Trump said.
Johnson’s statement seemed to mark a major reversal by Britain, which has supported the 2015 deal, along with the other signatories including France, Germany, China, and Russia. A U.K. government spokesperson Reuters that Johnson still supports the 2015 deal.
Report: Trump Has Erased Joe Biden’s Legacy
The Trump administration has been chipping away at one of former Vice President Joe Biden’s most important, if little-known, foreign-policy achievements. The 1999 Helms-Biden Act resulted in the payment of nearly $1 billion in unpaid arrears to the United Nations, and restored Washington’s standing at Turtle Bay. In January, the Trump administration will have driven U.S. debt to the U.N. back over the $1 billion mark for the first time in more than 20 years.
Read the whole story here.
How Has U.S. Opinion Changed?
U.S. public opinion of the United Nations has risen and fallen over time. Since 2003 a majority of Americans still think the U.N. is underperforming, but that trend appears to be reversing starting in 2018.
Washington’s Anti-Abortion Crusade Comes to Turtle Bay
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar opened his day of diplomacy at the United Nations by asserting that “there is no international right to an abortion.” The remarks came at the start of a U.N. Universal Health Care Summit, where world leaders issued a declaration promoting greater access to health care for billions and advocating greater access to sexual reproductive health. Earlier this month, Trump officials were frustrated in their effort to remove any reference to sexual or reproductive health and rights from a declaration agreed today by world leaders.
Today, Azar took aim at the declaration’s inclusion of such “ambiguous” language, saying it “can undermine the critical role of the family and promote practices like abortion” and “be misinterpreted by U.N. agencies” that provide reprodutive health services. Azar also took aim at sexual education programs, saying that “we only support sex education that appreciates the protective role of the family in this education and does not condone harmful sexual risks for young people.”
A conservative coalition. Azar and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have rallied a coalition of some 18 other countries–Bahrain, Belarus, Brazil, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Egypt, Guatemala, Haiti, Hungary, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Nigeria, Poland, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen–to issue a similar anti-abortion message.
Guterres trolls Trump. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres slapped back in his own address to delegations at the U.N. health care summit. “The political declaration in front of us is the most comprehensive agreement ever reached on global health—a vision of Universal Health Coverage by 2030,” Guterres. “The political declaration also states the need to ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health care-services and reproductive rights.”
Profile: The “Trump of the Tropics” Takes the Stage
Brazilian President Bolsonaro will resume his government’s privilege as the first head of state to address world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly today. But he will also take on the role of global villain, as he fends off criticism he is not doing enough to stop a surge in Amazon wildfires. The fires have made Bolsonaro the first world leader to face calls for sanctions as a result of his environmental policies.
While he’s expected to cut short his visit to UNGA due to health complications, Bolsonaro is eager to use his debut UNGA address to defend his record. “I am 100% certain that the president will go to New York,” said Regos Barros, a spokesperson for Bolsonaro. “He is pouring his heart into his speech to present our country, its potential, as well as to clarify all these issues relating to Brazil and the environment.”
The far-right former army captain won election in Oct. 2018 amid a groundswell of anti-establishment support in Brazil. Bolsonaro, often compared to Trump, has in the past made insulting comments about women and the LGBT community, and extolled the era in which Brazil was a military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985.
Like Trump, Bolsonaro has decried political correctness and drawn controversy over his economic and environmental policies. He’s locked horns with Western leaders and even top U.N. diplomats who have criticized him for his handling of domestic issues. U.N. human rights chief Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, reportedly said she “feels bad for Brazil” under Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro has accused Bachelet of unfairly meddling in internal Brazilian matters after she brought up police killings and violence against indigenous communities in Brazil. Also like Trump, he has a penchant for elevating family members to positions of power, raising eyebrows by floating the idea of appointing his son as ambassador to Washington.
The comparisons don’t stop there: Bolsanaro’s Brazil is also emerging as one of the U.N.’s major debtor nations, second only to the United States. One of the reasons is that Brazil’s economic rise ramped up its share of U.N. dues, but its economy began shrinking in 2015 and 2016. As of May, Brazil owed the U.N. over $400 million, especially for peacekeeping, as well as about $140 million in back dues for the U.N. administrative budget.
“Brazil has come close to losing its vote in the General Assembly over the last few years, but has been able to narrowly avoid this fate,” said Wassim Mir, a former British diplomat who co-authored a study wrote about about Brazil’s financial woes at the U.N. Losing its General Assembly vote would be “a massive embarrassment,” he said, but he expects Brazil will pony up just enough to avoid losing its vote.
Quote of the Day
“China is taking an aggressive stance at the U.N. to seize as much authority as others will allow… We can’t be asleep at the wheel, as the host country and largest donor to the United Nations.” — Sen. Todd Young (R-Ind.)
Young and Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) announced a new bill on Monday directing the U.S. intelligence community to study China’s growing influence in the United Nations and other international organizations. It’s been a top concern for senior U.S. diplomats, who worry China could use its clout at the U.N. to reshape international norms and institutions. But as the Trump administration pares back its commitments and investments in the United Nations, China seems more than happy to fill the vacuum.
A Snippet of U.N. History
The world described by George H. W. Bush in his address to the U.N. General Assembly on the “new world order” in 1991 seems unrecognizable today, as does the Republican Party he led at the end of the Cold War. The two Koreas had just joined the United Nations. The Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania were newly independent, taking up their seats in the General Assembly hall for the first time. The Soviet Union had just participated in an unprecedented military coalition that had driven the Iraqi dictator, Saddam Hussein, out of Kuwait, in the first Persian Gulf War.
But perhaps even more remarkable was the difference in tone that America’s first post-Cold War leader struck in addressing world leaders. In contrast to President Donald Trump, who has promoted an “America First” doctrine, Bush appealed for greater international cooperation, touting “free markets” and the “free flow of goods and ideas” as essential to raising economic standards around the world. He touted the importance of reaching agreement on a new trade deal, the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. If talks on the trade deal failed, he warned, “a new wave of protectionism could destroy our hopes for a better future.”
Odds and Ends
A stare is worth a thousand words. Don’t miss young climate activist Greta Thunberg’s reaction to seeing Trump walk by at the climate summit.
If there were a Nobel Prize for Braggadocio. Seated beside Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, President Trump said he believes he would win a Nobel Prize “for a lot of things, if they gave it out fairly, which they don’t. Well, they gave one to Obama, immediately upon his ascent to the presidency and he had no idea why he got it. You know what? That was the only thing I agreed with him on.”
Will Erdogan’s Brawling Bodyguards Behave?
President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s traveling security detail has earned itself a bit of a reputation. In May, 2017, Erdogan’s security detail and his supporters attacked a group of anti-government protesters outside the Turkish embassy in Washington. Police had to intervene to restrain the pro-government group, while Erdoğan, having just arrived with his entourage at the embassy, watched on. “There is no excuse for this thuggish behavior,” the late Sen.John McCain said at the time.
Here at Turtle Bay, U.N. security guards have their own raw memories of a battle with Erdogan’s bodyguards. In Sept. 2011, the security detail for the then-prime minister got into a violent brawl with the U.N. security detail, injuring at least two U.N. guards, including one who was taken to the hospital. One U.N. security official told Foreign Policy the incident still brings back sour memories in the United Nations, particularly since then-Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon apologized to Erdogan for a blow-up that, by most accounts, Turkish guards started.
There are dozens of events on the sidelines of UNGA this week if you get tired of the marathon of official UNGA speeches and want a change of scenery. Here are some of the events:
Sept 24: The Concordia Summit: This has become one of the biggest events on the sidelines of UNGA in recent years. Headline speakers today will include USAID chief Mark Green and Democratic Republic of Congo’s President Felix Tshisekedi.
Sept. 25: Champions for Gender Equality: U.N. Women and the Council of Women World Leaders is hosting this event featuring Executive Director for U.N. Women Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, the President of Croatia.
Sept. 25: The Bloomberg Global Business Forum. Headline speakers include Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi; former U.S. President Bill Clinton; Colombian President Ivan Duque Marquez; JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon; EU Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom, and a batch of other business leaders and diplomats.
Sept. 27: The Council on Foreign Relations will host Iraqi President Barham Salih for a conversation on the future of Iraq and its relationship with the United States.
And the Answer Is…
C) Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
Chávez, the left-wing populist, railed against Bush and what he called a pattern of imperialism and exploitation by the United States. “Yesterday, the devil came here,” Chávez said, referring to Bush’s appearance the day before. “Right here. And it smells of sulfur still today, this table that I am now standing in front of.”
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Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch