U.N. Brief
Get your insider’s guide to the biggest diplomatic event of the year as world leaders convene at the annual United Nations General Assembly. FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer deliver a daily newsletter to your inbox for a week known as the “Super Bowl for diplomats.”

Impeachment Inquiry Clouds Trump’s U.N. Display

Impeachment news hangs over the 74th U.N. General Assembly, but there is still plenty happening in New York.

By and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Displayed on a monitor, U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 24  in New York.
Displayed on a monitor, U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 24 in New York.
Displayed on a monitor, U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters on Sept. 24 in New York. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

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.

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: Impeachment news in Washington overshadows Trump’s speech at the U.N., Boris Johnson’s unusual UNGA speech, U.N. peacekeeping missions to kick out Sri Lankan troops, and a feisty new Chinese ambassador in Turtle Bay.

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Trump’s Bombastic U.N. Speech Overshadowed by Impeachment Inquiry

U.S. President Donald Trump took the stage at the U.N. General Assembly for the third time on Tuesday to outline his “America First” foreign policy. But his speech was quickly overshadowed by a political earthquake in Washington, where Democrats announced a formal impeachment inquiry into Trump over a fast-developing scandal related to Ukraine. (For a primer on that, see here.)

During his lengthy speech, Trump bragged about the size of the U.S. military, decried the influence of “globalists,” and attacked familiar targets including China, Iran, socialism, tech giants, career government officials, and the American press.

Trump’s address to world leaders was a full-throated rejection of many of the principles of international cooperation that inspired the creation of the United Nations at the end of World War II. He heaped praise on the idea of national sovereignty and railed against the supposed iniquities of the global trading system.

But Trump glossed over big foreign-policy priorities, from the war in Yemen to the Middle East peace process, making it clear that his target audience was his political base. His attacks on socialism—“the wrecker of nations”—in Cuba and Venezuela were also aimed  at the progressive wing of the Democratic Party a year ahead of elections. “America will never be a socialist country,” he said.

In a speech marked by a more even-keeled tone than usual, the president praised Mexico for deploying troops among its northern border and issued a warning to migrants seeking to enter the United States. “If you make it here, you will not be allowed in, you will be promptly returned home,” he said.

Key themes from Trump’s speech:

Nationalism. “The free world must embrace its national foundations. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them… if you want freedom, take pride in your country; if you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty.”

On “globalists.” “Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. The future does not belong to the globalists. The future belongs to patriots…. Globalism exerted a religious pull over past leaders causing them to ignore their own national interests. But as far as America is concerned, those days are over.”

On China. Beijing  has “embraced an economic model dependent on massive market barriers, heavy state subsidies, currency manipulation, product dumping, forced technology transfers, and the theft of intellectual property and also trade secrets on a grand scale.”

Press, academics, and government employees. “A permanent political class is openly disdainful, dismissive, and defiant of the will of the people. A faceless bureaucracy operates in secret and weakens democratic rule. Media and academics push flat-out assaults on our histories, traditions, and values.”

LGBTQ rights. “My administration is working with other nations to stop criminalizing homosexuality. And we stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people who live in countries that punish, jail, or execute individuals based upon sexual orientation.”

Iran sanctions. “All nations have a duty to act. No responsible government should subsidize Iran’s blood lust. As long as Iran’s menacing behavior continues, sanctions will not be lifted. They will be tightened.”

Middle East Peace Process, Syria, Libya, and Yemen. No mentions.

A Trumpian lullaby. One member of the audience was less than captivated: Wilbur Ross, Trump’s commerce secretary, appeared to nod off during the president’s speech.

Pop Quiz

Which country contributes the most troops to U.N. peacekeeping missions?

A) The United States
B) China
C) Ethiopia
D) India
E) South Africa

Who Casts the Most Vetoes? 

Take a look at how many times each permanent member of the U.N. Security Council has cast a veto over the past half century.

A Snippet of U.N. History

One of only five countries with permanent veto power at the United Nations, the United States waited a quarter of a century to use it. In 1970, the United States vetoed a resolution proposed by African and Asian countries that would have condemned Britain for not using force to overthrow the government of Rhodesia—modern-day Zimbabwe—ruled at the time by a white-minority government. The United States backed a separate British resolution, also defeated, that called on governments to enforce existing sanctions against Rhodesia and not recognize its government as legitimate. (By that point in time, the Soviet Union had already cast 105 vetoes at the U.N. Security Council.)

What We’re Following

Trump’s UNGA Schedule. Trump is slated to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this afternoon as U.S. Democrats’ push for impeachment hinges on allegations he asked Zelensky to investigate potential 2020 presidential challenger Joe Biden’s son over his work in Ukraine, and whether he withheld U.S. security assistance to the country in the process.

He’s also scheduled to chair a multilateral meeting on the Venezuela crisis; have bilateral meetings with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele; and give an afternoon press conference.

JCPOA lives on—for now. Foreign ministers from all the signatories of the Iran nuclear deal—except the United States—agreed to hold a Security Council meeting  at 8:30 a.m., diplomatic sources tell Foreign Policy. The Europeans are trying to keep the deal on life support after the United States withdrew from the pact, and in the wake of Iran’s purported attack on a Saudi oil facility earlier this month.

With friends like these. The U.S. president always hosts a swanky, invite-only reception for world leaders at the U.N., and this year was no different. Trump hosted world leaders at the Lotte New York Palace. But no leaders from the G-7 bloc of countries—including France, Germany, Japan, and Canada—showed up, diplomatic sources say, and Trump didn’t give a traditional toast or brief speech. He did meet plenty of other world leaders who lined up to shake hands and get a photo with the president. The event was, in the words of one official in attendance, a “very expensive photoline.”

Boris bids UNGA adieu. Crises at home have the leaders of two of America’s closest allies rearranging their UNGA plans. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu canceled his trip to UNGA after he failed to clinch a national majority in Israeli elections. And now British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is cutting short his trip, following a British Supreme Court ruling that his decision to suspend Parliament to pave the way for Brexit was unconstitutional.

Before his departure, Johnson delivered a highly unconventional speech focused not on Brexit or trade, but on microscopic robots and a techno-dystopian future. “Digital authoritarianism is not, alas, the stuff of dystopian future but of an emerging reality,” he warned U.N. delegates late Tuesday night. “AI—what will it mean? Helping robots washing and caring for an ageing population? Or pink eyed terminators sent back from the future to cull the human race?”

Johnson called on world leaders to ensure new technologies reflect the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. “At stake is whether we bequeath an Orwellian world, designed for censorship, repression and control,” he said, “or a world of emancipation, debate and learning, where technology threatens famine and disease, but not our freedom.”

Keeping Somalia on the agenda. The United States, Ethiopia, Italy, and Somalia will meet Wednesday morning to address instability in the east African country ahead of key Somalian elections in 2020 and 2021 and the resurgence of al-Shabaab terrorists. Somalia faces a political crisis as its capital and federal states grapple over division of power. “The standoff between Mogadishu and its federal member states only benefits actors such as al-Shabaab, which feed off the crisis and portray themselves as a better alternative to the perpetually feuding political class,” said Murithi Mutiga, Horn of Africa Project Director at the International Crisis Group.

Private Sector Shines Brightly

While world leaders hog the stage for speeches at the U.N. General Assembly, hundreds of executives are convening on the sidelines to discuss economic growth, sustainable development, climate change, and other key priorities for the United Nations. The beehive of private sector activity around UNGA comes from “the realization that there isn’t enough foreign assistance in the world, there isn’t enough philanthropy in the world to really achieve the goals we all seek to achieve, sustainable development goals, without mobilizing the resources and ingenuity and motivations of the private sector,” Michael Froman, former U.S. trade representative, told Foreign Policy.

Froman is now at Mastercard, the financial services and credit card company, which aims to bring hundreds of millions of new consumers into the digital economy and financial mainstream by 2020—a goal that largely dovetails with the U.N.’s priorities on economic development.

Sometimes the private sector outshines the government, as with climate change, a priority for the U.N. secretary-general and other world leaders this week. Global businesses and multinationals pledged to switch to green energy and reduce their carbon footprints in droves, while some member countries’ governments balked at ambitious climate pledges. “There was more significant real news on the business and investment side than on the country’s side,” Mary Robinson, the former president of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in an interview.

Profile: China Gets a Feisty New Ambassador in Turtle Bay

Zhang Jun, Permanent Representative of China to the United Nations, speaks during a Security Council meeting on Aug. 20 in New York.Eduardo Munoz Alvarez/Getty Images

China’s new U.N. envoy, Zhang Jun, delivered a sharply worded retort to Trump’s latest threat of tariffs. In an interview with a small group of reporters, including Bloomberg and Reuters, ahead of UNGA, Zhang took off the diplomatic gloves.

“China’s position is very clear that if U.S. wishes to talk, then we will talk, if they want to fight, then we will fight,” Zhang said. “We definitely will take whatever necessary countermeasures to protect our fundamental right, and we also urge the United States to come back to the right track in finding the right solution through the right way.”

The remarks signal a more assertive Chinese approach at the United Nations, a trend that the U.S. government has been watching with increasing concern. Zhang is the new face of China’s transforming role in Turtle Bay, where Beijing seems eager to seize the opportunity created by the Trump administration’s skepticism toward multilateralism and disdain toward U.N. institutions.

“Having ascended from the CCP’s core diplomatic establishment, Zhang Jun is clearly pushing forth Beijing’s agenda at the U.N. by not only doubling down on its core interests—Taiwan, Hong Kong, Tibet, and Xinjiang—but also by framing China’s growing activism in contrast with that of the United States’ inaction,” said Kristine Lee of the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.

Last month, China took the lead in pressing the U.N. Security Council to respond to India’s assertion of greater control over Jammu and Kashmir. Earlier this month, the Chinese mission threatened to veto a resolution extending the mandate of a U.N. mission in Afghanistan because it failed to include a provision promoting China’s Belt and Road project. China finally relented, but then joined Russia last week in vetoing another resolution calling for a ceasefire in Idlib, Syria, to facilitate the delivery of humanitarian assistance.

This follows a year in which China has deepened its leadership role, winning senior jobs in the U.N. Development Program and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, and securing a special envoy for the Great Lakes Region in the face of stiff diplomatic opposition from the United States. In the meantime, China has effectively persuaded top U.N. leaders to help it promote Belt and Road Initiative—China’s signature global development strategy that the U.S. national security establishment views with suspicion.

“Chinese diplomacy, while heavy-handed at times, can also be quite calculated and sophisticated. It’s seeing the gaps that the United States is leaving behind in climate change, development finance, and other areas and filling in those gaps to grow its clout within the organization,” said Lee.

Top diplomats at the United Nations are also taking notice. “For several years now, we have seen a more assertive China at the U.N.,” Karen Pierce, Britain’s ambassador to the United Nations, told reporters last week. “You could say that China, coming into her own, she’s not like Russia, but at the same time I think it’s no secret that China often pursues her bilateral or national economic interests under the guise of multilateralism.”

U.N. Bans Sri Lankan Peacekeepers

The U.N. peacekeeping department has decided to ban the deployment of non-essential Sri Lankan army troops in U.N. peacekeeping missions, citing the country’s appointment of an alleged war criminal to a top military post, a U.N. spokesperson told Foreign Policy.

Lt. General Shavendra Silva was recently appointed chief of the Sri Lankan army, eliciting criticism from the U.N., the United States, and the European Union.

Silva commanded Sri Lanka’s 58th division during the final stages of the country’s military campaign to crush the Tamil Tigers, a militant separatist movement known for pioneering suicide terror attacks. The Sri Lankan military has been accused of committing war crimes in a campaign that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of Tamil civilians, according to the United Nations.

The U.N. High Commissioner for the United Nations, Michelle Bachelet, announced last month that Silva’s appointment was  “deeply troubling” given the “serious allegations of gross violations of international human rights and humanitarian law against him and his troops during the war.”

This week, a U.N. spokesperson confirmed to Foreign Policy that it would ban new Sri Lankan units from deploying in U.N. missions unless their presence is vital for ensuring the missions’ security. “A Sri Lankan Army unit and individual officers currently serving with U.N. Peacekeeping will thus be repatriated, beginning next month, in accordance with their rotation dates and will not be replaced by Sri Lankan personnel,” said Farhan Haq, the deputy spokesman for U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres. He added the U.N. is “grateful” for Sri Lanka’s contribution of troops to six U.N. peacekeeping operations, but is troubled by Silva’s promotion.

“We have expressed our concern to the Government of Sri Lanka over the appointment of Lieutenant General Shavendra Silva to the position of Commander of the Sri Lanka Army, despite well-documented, credible allegations of his involvement in serious violations of international humanitarian and human rights law,” Haq said. “In light of this appointment, the U.N. Department of Peace Operations is therefore suspending future Sri Lankan Army deployments except where suspension would expose U.N. operations to serious operational risk,” he said.

Afghanistan’s Uncertain Future

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, who is seeking re-election this weekend, has decided to stay away from U.N. headquarters this week. And prospects of pursuing Afghan peace talks on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly look slim since Kabul sent Hamdullah Mohib, Ghani’s national security adviser, to represent Afghanistan in Ghani’s stead.

Mohib has been considered persona non grata since he took a swipe at the U.S. special envoy for Afghanistan, Zalmay Khalizad, during a March press conference in Washington. Infuriated over Afghanistan’s exclusion from U.S. peace talks with the Taliban, Mohib accused Khalilzad of “delegitimizing” Ghani’s government. “Knowing Ambassador Khalilzad’s history, his own personal history, he has ambitions in Afghanistan. He was wanting to run for president twice,” Mohib said. “The perception in Afghanistan and people in government think that perhaps, perhaps all this talk is to create a caretaker government of which he will then become the viceroy.”

Six months later, the State Department hasn’t forgotten the snub: Diplomatic sources tell Foreign Policy that the U.S. delegation is refusing to participate in any meetings with him.

The rift marks a stunning turn over events since Afghanistan’s first post-war president, Hamid Karzai, was feted in Washington and New York. Mohib, the last speaker of the GA general debate, is scheduled to deliver his address on Monday.

When asked whether the U.S. was icing out Mohib from conversations at UNGA, a State Department spokesman said: “Our policy toward Mr. Mohib has not changed.”

Odds and Ends

What’s on the menu? U.N. Secretary-General’s António Guterres’ General Assembly luncheon in the grand U.N. Delegates Lounge featured a salad with Baby Red romaine lettuce, mushrooms, grilled stone fruit, and white balsamic and truffle vinaigrette. The main course featured grilled Wagyu beef tenderloin, a confit of Yukon Gold potatoes, sauteed broccolini, plus a King Trumpet mushroom demi-glace. And for desert, a chocolate ganache mouse, chocolate genoise, chocolate mousse, fresh raspberries and passion fruit coulis.

Guterres sat at the main table flanked by Trump on his right and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on his left. Other world leaders at the head table included Polish President Andrzej Duda, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el Sisi, Qatar’s Emir Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, Jordan’s King Abdullah II and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was among the first leaders to arrive for lunch, and immediately began working the tables. In contrast, Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan made a beeline for his table, which awkwardly was close to his Indian counterpart. As Modi headed back to his table, he apparently noticed Khan seated directly in his path, and he took a longer route back to his table, according to a press pool report.

Toast of the town. In his toast, Guterres invoked the memory of a visit to U.N. headquarters by the late American astronaut, Neil Armstrong, to try to get Trump to appreciate the need to work cooperatively on the planet’s challenges.  “After the moon landing, immediately after, the astronauts came to the United Nations, and the crowd was so big that they had to go to the north lawn,” Guterres said. Armstrong wouldn’t speak much, Guterres said, but chose his words wisely. “I can tell that you share with us the hope that we citizens of the earth, who can solve the problems of leaving earth, can also solve the problem of living on it.”

Throwing shade. As Trump slammed Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro as a “dictator,” Venezuela’s diplomatic representative made sure people could see she was busy ignoring Trump by reading a book. Hat tip to Buzzfeed News’ Hayes Brown for the find.

Thor’s gavel. The unsung hero of every big governmental confab is the gavel. The United Nations Association of the U.K. posted a brief history of the gavel that belongs to the president of the U.N. General Assembly, dubbed “Thor’s Gavel.” The gavel was given to the U.N. General Assembly president in 1952 by Iceland’s first ambassador to the U.N., named Thor Thors. The gavel broke in 1960 when it was hammered repeatedly to try to calm down Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev to prevent him from banging his shoe on the podium at the United Nations—a moment that became iconic in U.N. history. It’s since been replaced with replicas from Iceland.

And the Answer Is…

C) Ethiopia.

The east African country contributes the most troops, police, and staff to U.N. peacekeeping and special political missions—7,060 according to the latest U.N. data from July, 2019. China comes in 11th place, with 2,521 troops and personnel. The United States is ranked 82nd, contributing 34 soldiers and police to U.N. missions.

For more on these stories and many others, visitforeignpolicy.com, subscribe here, or sign up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or corrections to newsletters@foreignpolicy.com.

Correction, Sept. 25, 2019: A Sri Lankan Army unit and individual officers currently serving with U.N. Peacekeeping missions will be repatriated beginning next month. A previous version of this story mischaracterized the status of their repatriation.

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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