Donald Trump’s second speech to the UN General Assembly lacked the fire and fury of his debut, but there was still plenty to concern world leaders. Sam Sachdeva was in the assembly chamber for the UNGA opening, and reports on the tone of Trump’s speech – as well as an unpredictable laugh line.
Anyone looking for an omen ahead of Donald Trump’s United Nations speech just needed to tilt their head towards the sky.
The rain pelted down through the clouds and onto New York streets early Tuesday morning (local time), with the silent lights of police sirens cutting through the gloom on the walk to the United Nations headquarters.
The heightened levels of security for the annual event – police cars everywhere, dump trucks filled with sand blocking off streets around the venue – seemed on par with the heightened sense of concern about the state of the world, something Trump has had no small role in.
At his inaugural speech to the UN General Assembly last year, Trump reached for biblical phrasing and bombast, calling for the “righteous many” to defeat “the wicked few” and warning he would “totally destroy” North Korea if it did not turn towards peace.
Would he be more diplomatic this year, following positive talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, or would he simply find a new target?
All would be revealed in the assembly chamber, a suitably formal setting with wooden panels almost resembling corrugated cardboard and the UN’s emblem emblazoned in bold, and gold, above the speakers’ podium.
Opening the proceedings, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke of the world suffering “a bad case of trust deficit disorder”.
“Within countries, people are losing faith in political establishments, polarisation is on the rise and populism is on the march,” Guterres said, summing up what he described as an increasingly chaotic world order.
“Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward.”
‘We share a common destiny’
A reference to Trump, and his pledge to “Make America Great Again”? Perhaps (not that Guterres would say as much directly).
Instead, he spoke of the need for leaders to carry out “collective, common-sense action for the common good”, pointing out that there had been no resolution to any of the seven challenges he named last year.
But there “winds of hope blowing around the globe”, Guterres said, referring to recent peace talks in a number of countries, before quoting the recently deceased and former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan.
“We share a common destiny. We can master it only if we face it together. And that, my friends, is why we have the United Nations.”
What did Trump think of that? It took longer to find out than expected: after Brazilian President Michel Temer spoke first as is tradition for his country, the US President’s tardiness in arriving forced Ecuador President Lenin Moreno to make an earlier appearance than expected.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was slightly late to her seat herself, taking her place a few minutes into Guterres’ opening after feeding Neve; perhaps wisely, her daughter was not with her and shielded from the unique Trump experience.
But eventually, Trump emerged from behind the stage with his familiar red tie descending below his belt and into the spotlight to talk about the “extraordinary progress” made under his leadership.
“In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Independence over global governance
A strange sound in such a formal environment: was that stifled laughter? It seemed so, and devolved into less obscured chuckles as Trump said with a smile: “I did not expect that reaction, that’s OK.”
Promoting his administration’s domestic achievements and economic growth, Trump said his team were “standing up for America and the American people, and we are also standing up for the world” – a chance to pivot to his theme of the day, that of sovereignty; or as he put it, “independence and cooperation over global governance”.
“The United States will not tell you how to live, work, or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
He, perhaps prematurely, hailed his talks with Kim and North Korea, saying missiles were “no longer flying in every direction”, but predictably lashed out at Iran and defended his decision to pull out of the nuclear deal with the country.
There was a rehash of previous trade critiques, with the president saying the US would no longer be taken advantage of in lopsided deals.
Then it was on to what Guterres may have dreaded, as Trump attacked a number of multilateral institutions.
The UN’s Human Rights Council was “a grave embarrassment to this institution”; the International Criminal Court “has no legitimacy or authority”; the US would not sign up to a UN-initiated global compact on migration, designed to improve conditions for and treatment of migrants.
“Migration should not be governed by an international body, unaccountable to our own citizens.”
Then there was a renewal of the threat to cut UN funding, with Trump saying his administration was carefully reviewing every dollar it was spending.
“We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.”
Concluding with a plea for everyone in the assembly to remember they had “the heart of a patriot”, it was a relatively downbeat speech, with sentiment cutting across the goals of Guterres and Ardern but lacking the bombast of last year.
Trump still has a chance to raise (or lower) the bar, when he chairs a UN Security Council meeting on non-proliferation tomorrow, but there was enough for the delegates to discuss, the meeting breaking into chatter during a five-minute recess.
Heading back into the outside world, the rain had eased off but the skies were still grey; not as bleak as might have been expected, but still enough cause for concern.