Assembly of All

All eyes on Donald Trump as he ascends the UNGA podium

Vivek Katju
Srinagar, Publish Date: Sep 21 2018 9:59PM | Updated Date: Sep 21 2018 9:59PM
Assembly of AllFile Photo

It’s time for the annual global diplomatic jamboree—the commencement of the annual General Assembly session of the United Nations. It begins every year on the “Tuesday of the third week of September counting from the first week that contains at least one working day”. Thus, the 73rd UNGA session began on September 18. Many world leaders congregate in New York formally to be present for the GA’s high-level segment and speak at the general debate which begins a week after the commencement of the session. Some seek to set the global agenda while some others to see and be seen and make an impression at home.  

The general debate traditionally begins with an address by Brazil and the second speaker is always the US President. All eyes will be on Donald Trump on September 25 when he ascends the UNGA podium and a day later when he chairs a UN Security Council meeting on Non-proliferation. Will his speeches offer clues on his national and international policies in the coming year and beyond? At a time when Trump has scrapped or cut spending on many UN programmes and pulled the US out of UN organisations (the Human Rights Council) or gone back on multilateral agreements (the Climate Change Paris Accords and the Iran Nuclear Deal) the international community will try to anticipate his next moves. It is of course difficult to do so in view of his mercurial nature and his negotiating style. Other important leaders who will be watched during the high-level segment are Iranian President Rouhani, British Prime Minister May and French President Macron. Notable absentees are Russian President Putin, Chinese President Xi, German Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj will represent India at the GA.

Last year Trump had emphasised his America first approach in his UNGA address and had pointed to the disproportionate burden borne by the US in keeping the UN going; 22% of the organisation’s budget is contributed by the US. Pouring scorn on North Korean leader Kim Jong un Trump said, “It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behaviour”. Expectedly, he had also condemned the Iranian government. He took pride in his Afghanistan policy, claiming that he had totally changed the rules of engagement. It will be interesting to see how he deals with these matters, especially, the situation relating to North Korea and Afghanistan. Far from isolating Kim, Trump embraced him in June. Three months later, Kim is yet to move decisively towards doing away with his nuclear weapons. Trump’s Afghanistan policy has not succeeded and US is displaying strategic desperation.

US-Iran relations will be under the spotlight. Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal was a unilateral action when it was a multilateral arrangement in which the P5 and Germany were signatories. That had led to the doing away with UN sanctions and some EU sanctions against Iran. Neither the UN nor the EU sanctions have been re-imposed. Trump is likely to press for UN action both at the GA as well as the UNSC but it is unlikely that he will make any headway. On the other hand, the US action may be criticised and the utility and sanctity of multilateral arrangements emphasised. These are not going to make Trump modify his approaches. Rouhani is a seasoned leader but he is facing criticism at home and the Iranian economy is in trouble which will increase because of the US sanctions. He may gain sympathy but little else at the GA and in his interactions with other world leaders during the UNGA session. Rouhani’s focus will be on showing that Iran is not isolated. Will that satisfy the Iranian people at this stage? 

The UNGA session opens under the shadow of US-China trade wars. Its fall out is being felt world-wide. The traditional view is that both the US and China would stand to lose if their differences were not wisely managed. Trump is obviously escalating matters for he feels that the Chinese economy is more vulnerable. This is brinkmanship but then he is a practitioner of the art. There is no doubt that China needs to provide a level playing field to other countries but may find it difficult to move in that direction especially under duress. The international community will anxiously watch US and Chinese statements during the UNGA for signs of a thaw and other leaders will doubtless stress the virtues of trade multilateralism. 

During the general debate the question of the day naturally attract attention. In additions attempts are made by concerned countries that issues, old and new, of importance to them do not fade away. Thus, early on in this session, many countries will refer to the situation in west Asia including the continuing situation in Syria and the Palestinian issue. Afghanistan is no longer a great international priority but it will attract attention, so will terrorism, climate change, migration and social and economic matters. However, in the UNGA, as elsewhere, the agenda is ultimately set by the Great Powers.

Mature countries with mutual differences need to refrain from using the UNGA and other UN forums to air mutual differences. Their recriminations may appeal to domestic audiences but do not serve any diplomatic purpose. They invite indifference at best but generally an impatient ‘here they go again’.

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