Sovereignty versus Voices – Thoughts on Trump and Macron’s Addresses at the UN


World  leaders are gathered in New York for the opening of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. This year is quite unique with a series of major unknowns and new players. The 2017 session included the recently elected American president, Donald Trump, and French president, Emmanuel Macron. In addition, the United Nations (UN) is headed by a new Secretary General, António Guterres, trying to make a name for himself. If these players matter, the geopolitical context requires a concrete and thoughtful reflection on its engaging world players on a multilateral basis. Comparing Macron and Trump’ speeches permits one to reflect on the internal forces at play and visions within the liberal order at a time of growing instabilities and complex challenges.

Unknowns Ahead of the 72nd UNGA Session

President Trump was elected in November 2016 on a nationalist platform summed up in his campaign slogan, America first. Trump’s vision of the world is dire, dark and negative, requiring the US to start defending his interests and national security on unilateral basis. Historical alliances, global governance, multilateral institutions and global trade are undermining American interests and supremacy. Trump perceives diplomacy in transactional terms, wherein only the US can win. Months later, in May 2017, on the other side of the pond, Emmanuel Macron won the french presidential race by campaigning on an agenda calling for audacity and grounded on a pro-Europe and pro-multilateralism agenda. Macron’s election was perceived as the end of the populist rise beginning with Brexit and allowing Trump to win the White House. The two leaders met on a series of occasions, the first time at a NATO summit and the second in Paris for the 14 of July. Both men could not be more different, but appear to be developing a relationship.

Ahead of the 72nd session, the future engagement of the US as part of the Paris deal (global fight against climate change), North Korea, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, and multilateralism at large remain unknown. These four issues are at the center of the global agenda due to a shift in American foreign policy since the election of Trump. Soon in office, Trump called for the departure of the US from the Paris deal and has been more than unclear about the reality of climate change. Interestingly enough, many experts were, positively, surprised by the fact that world leaders remained committed to the Paris deal despite the departure of the US. On North Korea, Trump has escalated the rhetorics, as part of his tweeting war, threatening to unleash ‘fire and fury‘ against North Korea ensuing the launch of  intercontinental ballistic missiles. With regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump had used this issue on the campaign trail to undermine diplomacy and multilateralism and Secretary Clinton (whom did not finalize the deal). The Iran deal is widely perceived among conservative and republican circles as a failure, which will undeniably result with Iran becoming a nuclear power. Lastly, on multilateralism, Trump has never shied away from the fact that unilateralism and transactional foreign policy serve better American interests than complex organizations like the United Nations.

In less than a year, President Trump has managed to shape a new narrative about the instability of the international order, in particular the liberal order, and the need for the US to use military might at all costs to advance its interests (i.e. the limited bombing over Syrian and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan).

Trump-Macron Ping-Pong

The speeches of both leaders could not be more at odds. If Trump sees the world and foreign policy as a transaction and through unilateralism, Macron has expressed his support towards multilateralism and global governance. Both leaders made their debut at the UN earlier today and their respective speeches confirm the prior statement.

UN Photo/Cia Pak

President Trump’s speech (here) certainly marks a breakup with his predecessor. Trump opened his address before global leaders with a campaign tone talking about domestic matters (the growing economy, the strengthening American military and American resilience). Trump emphasized at great length the concepts of sovereignty (used 21 times in total including the word sovereign), security, prosperity and power. Regarding the way he sees American foreign policy, he underlined that the US was guided by outcomes and not ideology. “We have a policy of principled realism,” he argued “rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.” Some claimed that this speech demonstrated a return to realpolitik for the US. But half way through his speech, the American president made the following statement, “The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based.” These rogue regimes were identified as North Korea and Iran.

On North Korea, Trump used the platform to directly threaten the regime in Pyongyang claiming that the US may have no other option than “to totally destroy North Korea.” The language utilized to describe the members and leader of the North Korean regime was undiplomatic to say that least. He used this part, without mentioning it, to point the finger at Beijing. Ensuing his menace, he said “That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for.  Let’s see how they do.” The use of the pronoun ‘they’ in the last clause indicates the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the world. It indicates that Washington has its strategy ready (use of military force), and now the members of the UN can try to find an alternative via diplomacy.

Macron’ speech (here in French) had a totally different tone. His opening sentences emphasized the core ideas, values and norms encompassed by the UN and the desire to design a new system putting human rights at its center (with a natural

Opening of GA 72 2017 AM
UN Photo/Cia Pak

reference to René Cassin). The issues laid out by the french leader consisted of Syria, terrorism (Iraq), Mali (G5 Sahel and MINUSMA), protection of refugees, climate change, nuclear proliferation, multilateralism, and the reform of the UN (less bureaucratic and more active).

On climate change, President Macron directly responded to President Trump by expressing absolute opposition to renegotiating the Paris deal. On nuclear proliferation, Macron expressed deep concerns with the way North Korea behaves on the international stage, but rejected Trump’s reference of the Iranian deal as a bad one.

If Trump’s narrative was centered around the theme of sovereignty, the structure of Macron’s address was organized on the idea of France’s ability to hear the voices of the weakest and defending their rights and empowering them by speaking for them. Through the emphasis of voices, Macron presented France as a guardian of the weakest with French national interest being directly intertwined with global security. In reading and analyzing Macron’ speeches (for instance with his recent speech in Athens), one can identify a series of commonality: bringing France into the sphere of superpower (at least in rhetorics); similitude with an Obamaesque style of narration; deep reference and understanding of history; and a bold and global call for audacity. This style certainly breaks with the recent past of addresses of French presidents (in particular Sarkozy and Hollande) and re-unites France, for better or worst, with its gaullo-mitterrandist heritage.

Concluding with Secretary General Guterres’s comments seems appropriate. “We are a world in pieces. We need to be a world at peace.” The antipodal addresses of the American and French leaders illustrates a clear split within the West about framing critical menaces, developing a cohesive strategy, and ultimately shaping world affairs. The transition from rhetorics to actions, if any, will be fascinating to observe.


Politipond returns


After several years of absence, politipond is back in business. The world, and especially European politics, hasn’t stopped. To many the European continent was perceived as a stable, to some degree boring, region of the world. Well, since 2007 and the collapse of the financial markets, Europe has re-become a central region of the world; a key piece of the global chessboard. With the current shifts of regional and global balances of power, the existence of the Union is questioned on daily basis. For instance, Britain under conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, is calling for a return of power from Brussels to the Member States. The eventual British referendum on the future of Britain’s EU membership will be an interesting event to monitor in the coming years. So far, European integration and enlargement have only been about horizontal and vertical deepening, not the other way around.

On the international scale, the US under President Obama has shifted its attention towards Asia, known as the pivot. Additionally, the American grand strategy is in period of retrenchment, requiring European allies to take on the lead and some of the burden in stabilizing their neighborhoods and acting as regional power. At the exception of France, no other powerful EU Member State has answered the call. Britain has cut its defense spending, Germany has been a reluctant foreign policy actor, and Southern European Member States are more concerned about their economic recoveries and structural reforms than foreign affairs. Such inward looking by European Member States is a worrisome trend as the neighborhoods require more attention and actions. The EU cannot let its neighborhoods in flame as the consequences – terrorism, illegal migration, illegal drug, human and arms traffickings – could become heavy, costly and dangerous for the stability of the Member States and the EU. The concept of Fortress Europe is only a constructed idea; threats and problems do not stop at European borders. Last but not least, despite the recent visit of President Obama for the 70th anniversary of the débarquement in Normandy, the transatlantic relations have been under severe strains caused by the Snowden’s leaks, difficult negotiations around the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), and other strategic, economic and financial disagreements.

Politipond will be analyzing, reflecting and commenting on a broad range of issues as illustrated below:

  • European neighborhoods are in absolute shamble: East with Ukraine and Russia; South with a changing Egypt and rise of instabilities in Libya; South-East with the continuation of the violent and vicious war in Syria; and Middle-East with the massive instabilities created by the terrorist network ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)
  • The political climate in Europe is turning towards radical political movements and becoming extremely vicious and euro-skeptic. For instance, several EU Member States have seen the rise and influence of extreme right-wing movements such as the Front National in France winning the latest European elections in France, and in other countries like the UK, Denmark and Austria. Others have seen the solidification of the extreme left parties like Syriza in Greece. The domestic rise of populism in most EU Member States is certainly affecting the quality of democracy and political debates in Europe. Their consequences and impacts on the political agendas are already visible.
  • Then, the Common Security and Defense Policy (CSDP) is facing serious challenges: lack of willingness and commitment of EU Member States; lack of strategic vision; limited relevance. Once seen has a very positive European endeavor soon after its creation in 1998, the CSDP has been one of the main victims of the Eurozone crisis. The latest CSDP mission in Central African Republic (CAR) does not show the CSDP under a positive light. It instead underscores the lack of interest by most EU Member States to the CSDP and to some degree the rise of European isolationism. The upcoming book, Debating European Security and Defense Policy. Understanding the Complexity, looks in depth at the transformation of the CSDP since its creation and evaluates the CSDP over time.
  • Now that the European elections are over, the European game of thrones has already began with the behind the doors’ discussions around the selections of high level officials: the President of the Commission; the President of the European Council; and the High Representative/Vice President of the Commission.
  • The economic outlook of the Eurozone and the EU is not very bright. Many experts are talking of an eventual lost decade for the EU, the same way the 1990s were for Japan. The consequences of such dark economic prospects are causing serious challenges for the future of the Union: rise of inequalities; high level unemployment for European youths; rise of populism; lack of structural reforms; perpetual blame of Brussels for domestic and European problems/failures.
  • In the US, the debate on privacy and power of the government in assuring security to the homeland has been raging since the massive Snowden’s leaks a year ago. The debate over transparency in national security and foreign policy has only taken place in D.C. President Obama has expressed at several occasion his commitments to transparency, but policies haven’t followed, just yet.
  • Last but not least, the transfer of power from the West to the Rest seems to be happening faster than expected. The liberal order, created and enforced by the US since the end of World War two, incorporating core values – democracy, individual and collective freedoms –, an economic model – capitalism, even though there are several variants –, multilateral institutions – the UN systems, NATO, OSCE, WTO, Council of Europe –, seems to be under serious challenges. The Americans and Europeans have had some difficulty in first assessing the risks of the shift of global order, and second, in adjusting the liberal order in accordance with the new global realities and forces.
(Copyright 2014 by Politipond. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)