There is no love lost between the United Nations and US President Donald Trump. Now, as the UN marks its 75th anniversary the only world leader addressing the assembly in-person this September is going to be Trump.
When he addressed the high-level segment of the UN General Assembly in September 2018, Trump falsely told delegates: “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
The misleading statement triggered loud laughter from world leaders and delegates from 192 countries. But as he does with all negative reactions, Trump later gave it a spin. He said the delegates did not laugh at him, they really laughed “with him”.
As an avowed unilateralist, Trump abhors multilateral institutions. Since he took office back in January 2017, he has either de-funded, withdrawn from, or denigrated several UN agencies and affiliated institutions, including the World Health Organization, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA), the World Trade Organization (WTO), the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the UN Human Rights Council, among others.
US Ambassador to the UN Kelly Craft told a virtual event last month that Trump would be “the only world leader to be speaking in person…this is the 75th anniversary so it makes it even more special.”
But the UN has maintained, irrespective of who addresses the next 75th General Assembly sessions in person, the building will still have to be ‘largely empty’ because of the continued COVID-19 lockdown since end-March.
In a vibrantly-sarcastic comment, Kul Gautam, a former UN assistant secretary-general, told IPS: “Let Trump’s address at the 2020 UN General Assembly be his last hurrah in an empty GA Hall with world leaders mocking him from afar, and bidding him adieu.”
Gautam pointed out that American leadership was decisive in creating and sustaining the post-World War II architecture of multilateral diplomacy with the United Nations as its centerpiece. But Trump will go down in history as the sole American President who made zero contribution to strengthening the UN, declared Gautam, who is from Nepal.
With the US presidential election campaign virtually grounded due to the spreading coronavirus pandemic, Trump may be looking at the UN as a global political platform to advance his re-election bid, as he has fallen far behind his Democratic rival Joe Biden.
That may be an irony of ironies because of Trump’s distaste towards UN institutions and more importantly, his virulent attacks on people from UN member states, including Haitians and Africans.
At a 2017 White House meeting, Trump apparently said all Haitians “have AIDS”, that Nigerians should “go back to their huts in Africa’, and also questioned why the US should welcome people from “shithole countries”.
Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, told IPS: “As usual, I’m afraid that Trump will embarrass himself and the United States with his brash and often incoherent statements. There is no doubt in my mind that he will boast about how he handled the coronavirus, and he may very well say that America handled it better than any other country, when in fact the precise opposite is true.”
Given his low numbers in the polls, he will try to boast about America’s military strength, and probably the ‘wonderful’ trade deals that he made.
“I suspect that, just like in September 2018, many of the assembled will laugh and dismiss much of what he will say,” declared Ben-Meir, who is also Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute.
Trump, who predictably changes his mind ever so often, may still decide to abandon the idea of physically addressing the UN.
Gautam told IPS: “As the champion of “America First” unilateralism, Trump sought to disrupt and undermine many carefully crafted multilateral initiatives ranging from climate change, human rights, disarmament and nuclear non-proliferation, to the much-needed global solidarity to tackle the greatest pandemic to hit humanity in modern times.”
The damage caused to these initiatives and institutions by Trump, he argued, will take a long time to heal and remedy, but added: “I am confident that over the long haul, good sense will prevail over this historic aberration.”
Asked about Trump’s plans to address the General Assembly in person, UN Deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq told reporters: “I don’t want to speculate on what the future will hold. As you know, the Secretariat will be in touch, basically through the Office of the President of the General Assembly, with the Member States on their representation. We have made clear what the conditions in the building are, what the need is for a scaled back ceremony.”
But Member States, he pointed out, are aware that they have different options, including recorded messages or, in some cases, appearances.
Haq added: “We trust and expect that all Member States will abide by the need to keep the numbers low, and we’ll see what they do in terms of their preparations.”