Patriotism versus multilateralism at the 73rd UN General Assembly

How to tackle the pressing problems of our time – unilaterally or collectively? This week the world’s leaders have presented their visions and priorities at the UN in New York.

When more than 190 national officials from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe gathered in New York for the opening of the 73rd General Assembly of the United Nations and elaborated one by one on their view of the world during the course of this week, they shared one insight: Our current crises require immediate and determined responses. Denuclearization in North Korea, civil war in Syria, humanitarian catastrophe in Yemen and the effects of climate change are some of those challenges awaiting resolution.

And, at least rhetorically, no one disputed the importance of peaceful settlement and political dialogue. The UN Charter would be the moral guide in these times of uncertainty and instability, the officials agreed. The most crucial question however reflected the divergence between the nations of the world: Shall we pursue collective or unilateral action?

US President Trump had unofficially opened that debate during the past months, having withdrawn from key multilateral institutions such as the UN Human Rights Council, UNESCO or the Paris Agreement on climate change COP21. His decision to provoke a trade war and turn the global trade regime upside down underscored his view that the current systems of international cooperation – the UN, WTO, international treaties – are ineffective and unfair. No longer would foreign aid be given by the US to countries that did not somehow have something to offer.

And since his speech in front of all UN member states on Tuesday we also know what drives Trump’s policies: the “doctrine of patriotism”.

Last among equals

If the American President seeks global support for his approach, most nations and regions remain to be convinced. Trump is dismantling multilateralism at a time when we would most need it, many countries argue. Particularly states who are not represented among the 15 members of the most powerful chamber of the United Nations – the Security Council – lament such self-interest. Even though countries are eager to solve their own problems themselves (“African solutions for African problems”, “Syria-led peace process”), they often depend on support from the global players.

Climate change, migration or the fight against terrorism are the most cited examples of transnational issues. Unilateral actions may alleviate problems, but the root causes remain unaddressed. Geographical borders delimit national sovereignty but not the movement of people, ideologies or climate phenomena. This might demand more than a single country can afford.

Many nations’ desired solution lies with the reform of the UN, which they hope will widen membership in the Security Council and thus increase the influence of poorer, often under-represented states. It is their attempt of challenging the status quo where too often might is right.

This week, the UN offered a stage and worldwide audience to those nations that receive little attention during the rest of the year – small island states, observer states and least developed countries. They used this opportunity to voice their concerns or indignation due to the collective inaction in many areas. Until the 74th Assembly starting next September, they will try to seek a comparable level of attention for their causes.

Against the media machine of developed countries, this is a hopeless task. In the meantime, little might remain of the rhetoric pledges to multilateralism.

Videos and speeches of all nations’ statements delivered during the high-level week of the 73rd General Assembly can be found here.

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