The head of the United Nations has made a plea for the world to avoid a “great fracture” of the rules-based order, but the lineup of speakers on what some dubbed “Dictator Day” offered little reason for hope.
In recent years, the opening day of the United Nations General Assembly has become a dance whose opening steps are well choreographed in advance.
The head of the UN delivers a full-throated rallying call for the rules-based order; then, shortly thereafter, the current “leader of the free world” (as the United States presidency has traditionally been known) does his utmost to poke holes in that order.
So it was far from a shock to hear the divergent views on display in New York, even if that does not reduce the urgency of the argument for those on both sides of the debate.
Opening the event, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres spoke of his fears regarding the growing divide between China and the United States, even if he did not refer to the superpowers by name.
“I fear the possibility of a Great Fracture: the world splitting in two, with the two largest economies on earth creating two separate and competing worlds, each with their own dominant currency, trade and financial rules, their own internet and artificial intelligence capacities, and their own zero sum geopolitical and military strategies.
“We see wide-ranging impunity, including for violations of international humanitarian law. New forms of authoritarianism are flourishing.”
“We must do everything possible to avert the Great Fracture and maintain a universal system – a universal economy with universal respect for international law; a multipolar world with strong multilateral institutions.”
The world had reached a critical juncture, Guterres said, with the freedoms won over decades being “restricted and reversed, misinterpreted and mistrusted”.
“We see wide-ranging impunity, including for violations of international humanitarian law. New forms of authoritarianism are flourishing. Civic space is narrowing…
“We see not only borders, but hearts, closing — as refugee families are torn apart and the right to seek asylum torn asunder.”
Having spoken of “winds of hope” at last year’s General Assembly despite global instability, Guterres insisted there was still reason for optimism – although anyone watching the speakers after him could have been forgiven for thinking otherwise.
Through a quirk of the UN’s scheduling, the line up consisted of four world leaders known for their autocratic or hardline rule – Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, and the United States’ Donald Trump – in what the Politico website called “Dictator Day at the UN”.
Bolsonaro delivered a fiery response to concerns about his country’s alleged mismanagement of fires raging in the Amazon, accusing critics of misstating the facts and denying that the rainforest was being devastated.
“We all know that all countries have problems. Yet, the sensationalist attacks that we have suffered coming from a large part of the international media due to the fire outbreaks in the Amazonian region have aroused our patriotic sentiment.”
He also went on an extended rant about the ills of socialism, as well as a damnation of those who had “perverted biology” by teaching gender ideology and undermining religious freedoms.
Following on from Bolsonaro, Trump appeared far more rational as a result.
The US President curbed his more radical tendencies in his speech to the UN last year, and this year’s address was similarly devoid of any real fire and fury as he stuck closely to his teleprompter.
“The future does not belong to globalists – the future belongs to patriots, the future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbours, and honour the differences that makes every country special and unique.”
Trump does not do soaring rhetoric, so it was no surprise that a line about “beholding saints who inspired us with hope” did not land – but even his more red-meat remarks were delivered with a surprising lethargy.
There were predictable cracks about multilateralism: “The future does not belong to globalists – the future belongs to patriots, the future belongs to sovereign and independent nations who protect their citizens, respect their neighbours, and honour the differences that makes every country special and unique.”
There was also a thinly veiled threat about the US’ military capacity, with Trump calling it “by far the world’s most powerful nation” – “‘hopefully it will never have to use this power,” he added.
But his remarks on China, Iran and other nations seemed both tokenistic and tired, while he seemed to again swing towards dovishness after the dismissal of his former national security advisor John Bolton.
“Many of America’s closest fields today were some of our greatest foes – the United States has never believed in permanent enemies.
“We want partners not adversaries: America knows while anyone can choose war, only the most courageous can pursue peace.”
Whether he was distracted by growing calls for his impeachment over alleged foreign interference in discussions with Ukraine’s leader, or simply not in his natural environment, Trump did not appear comfortable on stage.
Social media discomfort
His attacks on social media giants would have given Ardern some discomfort too in the wake of her Christchurch Call announcement the day before, with Trump suggesting the companies were “acquiring immense power over what we can see and over what we are allowed to say”.
“In the United States, my administration has made clear to social media companies that we will uphold the right of free speech. A free society cannot allow social media giants to silence the voices of the people.”
That rhetoric does not directly contradict the Christchurch Call’s goals, but it does sit a little uneasily with plans to direct social media users viewing extremist content towards anti-radicalisation providers – something which could easily be twisted by Trump’s supporters.
More broadly, the message being pushed by Trump, Bolsonaro and other populists about the perils of globalism – and the fact that their number appears to be growing – will be a cause of great alarm to Ardern and her government, given New Zealand’s susceptibility to the headwinds of protectionism.
Ardern will be able to push her country’s own perspective during her national address early Wednesday afternoon (NZT), where she is expected to focus heavily on the lessons New Zealand and others have learned from the March 15 terror attack, as well as how the framework of the Christchurch Call can apply to other transnational challenges.
Climate change is also likely to feature heavily – no surprise given Guterres has put the issue on the top of his agenda, although it was a topic notable by its absence in Trump’s address.