US President Donald Trump had characterised the United Nations as a club and a talking shop, but he spent two days at the UN this year, first addressing the General Assembly and then chairing the Security Council. His purpose was merely to tell the UN that he did not care much about globalism and that the US would act in its own national interests and exercise its sovereignty. He sought to destroy the simple premise on which the UN was founded, that by joining the world body, every country will be surrendering a little bit of its sovereignty for the common good of the world.
A time had come at the end of the Cold War, when a Secretary General suggested that the time of absolute sovereignty of nations had passed and that nations should work more and more in the interest of the global commons. The member states did not subscribe to the idea fully, but promised to work towards less stress on sovereignty, but more on universality. President Trump went to the other extreme and said that every country should act in its own interests.
The President said, “We believe that when nations respect the rights of their neighbours, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity, and peace. Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth. That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination. I honour the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honour our sovereignty in return.”
For President Trump, the UN is merely a forum to listen to him in awe and admire his accomplishments without challenging him in any way. He withdrew from the UN bodies, which had painstakingly worked out consensus positions to serve the cause of peace like the Human Rights Council, which the US itself had proposed, UNESCO, the Paris Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, proclaiming loudly that he would go his own way, using his power to isolate nations through sanctions, trade war or war itself.
The global response to this approach came loud and clear when the General Assembly burst into laughter when he claimed, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” A surprised President said that he did not expect that reaction, but it was okay with him. A President, who had repeatedly said that the whole world was laughing at the UN for the foibles of his predecessors, had a real taste of the world laughing at him. But still, he continued to assert, “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Nothing could be farther from the thoughts of the founding fathers of the UN when they founded the UN to save the succeeding generations from the scourge of war. He wishes to turn the UN from a body designed to ensure international peace and security on the basis of a common commitment into a 'coalition of the willing' to support US interests. The US would work with the UN when it suited them or act on their own, when necessary.
For President Trump, the reform of the United Nations consists largely of reducing the US commitment to it, such as reducing its contribution to the peacekeeping budget to 25 per cent and shifting more of US funding from assessed contributions to voluntary so that they can choose who to support. For the sake of form, of course, he declared, “Only when each of us does our part and contributes our share can we realize the UN’s highest aspirations. We must pursue peace without fear, hope without despair, and security without apology.”
India was the first country that President Trump chose to mention approvingly in his speech, but it was hardly a compliment. About a country, emerging as a global power and aspiring to be a permanent member of the Security Council and a close defence partner of the US, he said condescendingly, “There is India, a free society over a billion people, successfully lifting countless millions out of poverty and into the middle class.” No mention was made of the common values, which made India and the US natural allies and strategic partners and India’s role in the growth of technology in the US.
The way the President made use of the opportunity of the US Presidency for the month of September 2018 to preside over the Council for a day was nothing but an affront to the traditions of the Security Council. The UN Secretary General and his staff must have worked hard to find a formula for the President to hold forth from the chair of the Security Council against those whom he did not approve of and to encourage those who worked with him. The agenda chosen was non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, as his primary target was Iran. The worst end of the stick was reserved for China, which was accused, surprisingly, of interfering in the forthcoming elections to the Congress in the US. He attacked Russia for making a mess of Syria, but praised it for not bombing out the Idlib province. He had very kind words about President Kim Jong-un, whom he had threatened to destroy last year, but pledged to suffocate Iran till it abandoned its nuclear ambitions. It was a monologue which even America’s closest allies could not endorse, but that did not matter to him. He was exercising his sovereignty, which the other nations had a duty to protect and defend. He had no proposal to make for nuclear disarmament or any kind of offer to make to the world. He made a mockery of a special session of the Security Council, attended by heads of governments and foreign ministers.
As President Rouhani of Iran remarked, the US exposed its isolation in the world as no one supported the positions Trump had taken. His claim to have achieved much in the way of resolving global issues was as laughable as his statement that his achievements as the president were unprecedented in history. Even his announcement that he would achieve denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula because of the 'noble' president of North Korea was heard with disbelief. His insistence that sanctions against North Korea would stay and that violators of sanctions would be punished were clear indications of the actual state of play in Korea.
President Trump virtually redefined multilateralism as an option of the weak nations. The powerful nations would simply dictate to the world to go by their patriotic demands. But mercifully, the US diplomats will not shut themselves out of the forthcoming negotiations at the UN, as it will be unwise to isolate the country from the international efforts to build peace. It is important to engage with the world, even if it is merely to protect its sovereignty. Like many citizens of the US, they are already looking beyond the present president to restore the traditional role of the US in world affairs.