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Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 October 2018

Postcard from the UN: Two world views emerge... but sooner or later some middle ground will have to be found

UN General Assembly 2018: At the end of the first day of the General Debate, our Editor-in-Chief Mina Al-Oraibi writes from New York

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with President Donald Trump during the "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem" at the United Nations General Assembly. AP
United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres shakes hands with President Donald Trump during the "Global Call to Action on the World Drug Problem" at the United Nations General Assembly. AP

Two world views emerged from the UN General Assembly chamber on Tuesday – and they could not be more different.

One, led by the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres, called for strengthening multilateralism, combating climate change and ensuring the dignity of every human.

The second, from American President Donald Trump, touted “patriotism over globalism”, protecting sovereignty and “principled realism”.

The marked contrast between Mr Guterres and Mr Trump at the 73rd session of the assembly reflect a schism that exacerbates global challenges. Globalisation, which Mr Guterres champions, no longer enjoys a consensus of support on the world stage.

Member nations of the international community are faced with even greater choices on the pursuit of collective action as compared with national security interests.

While Mr Guterres made the need to combat climate change a pinnacle of his speech, Mr Trump failed to mention it. He used his platform on the world stage to attack global institutions such as the International Criminal Court and the UN Human Rights Council, along with systems of international trade.

In attacking the court, Mr Trump said that he “will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy”. There are many countries, including Israel, who have taken a similar line in the past.

However, the danger here is that having a country with the importance of the US de-legitimising the ICC can lead to the end of the court, without any alternative in its place.

Mr Guterres, who often speaks of his pride at being a “migrant”, a Portuguese former prime minister who worked in Geneva and now works in New York, stands in marked contrast to Mr Trump.

Yesterday, the American president announced a new position on migration for the US – once a land of migrants – calling on people to stay in their nations and “make their countries great again”, a play on his own campaign slogan of “Make America Great Again”.

A strongly isolationist America is new for the UN. In its 73 years, the world body has benefited from the US as a key member championing globalisation and international organisations – often to its own benefit and sometimes to the frustration of other states.

In fairness, many of the criticisms that Mr Trump levelled are voiced discreetly behind closed doors. Mr Guterres has repeatedly called for reforms but the pace of progress remains too slow.

In his haste to see changes happening, Mr Trump was clear that he is adopting his own sovereign policies and others will either have to follow suit or get out of the way.

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Read more coverage from the UN General Assembly:

Trump puts Iran's regional aggression at centre of UNGA speech

UN chief Antonio Guterres urges world leaders to promote global co-operation

Emmanuel Macron's foreign limelight is an escape from darkness at home

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In the long term, Mr Trump and Mr Guterres need each other to achieve their goals. They both addressed the need to resolve the Syrian and Yemeni crises, two issues on which the UN is leading.

For Mr Trump’s position on Iran to work, he will need international co-operation. His chairing of the UN Security Council today on non-proliferation is geared towards finding international backing.

Likewise, reforming the UN and influencing peacekeeping requires the Secretary General to play an active, enabled role.

Mr Guterres and Mr Trump are close to completing their second year in office. Mr Trump has two left in his first term, while Mr Guterres has three. Both will probably seek a second term. In short, they are both here to stay. It is necessary that with time, they find ways of working together.

Of course, diplomatic niceties can help future co-operation. After their speeches yesterday, Mr Trump addressed his host at a lunch, unexpectedly saying: “Mr Secretary General, I’d like to commend you on the job you’re doing at the UN.”