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).
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.
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
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.