Wrestle Mania at United Nations General Assembly

25 September 2017 12:00 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


By Dr.Harinda Vidanage

President Trump reiterated his willingness to destroy North Korea which was captured by the global media

 Trump’s ideas about UN reforms and Guterres sense are very different

Germany is bracing for its general elections and Merkel is the favourite to win

People, Peace and Decent life for all, was the theme of 72nd UN General Assembly (UNGA), yet what stood out from the interventions of some key global leaders was antithetical to the theme. Rather than peace and coexistence the forum was more like a ring for professional wrestlers who punched and kicked each other to the cheering frenzy of their fans. Thus from threats such as wiping out nations, to terrorist branding of nations and leaders the UNGA became less about global governance and more about global fractures.  

Pakistan accused India of sponsoring terrorism inside of its borders and called for a hard response if Indians do not cease interventions in Pakistan. India shot back, naming Pakistan as ‘Terroristan’. President Trump reiterated his willingness to destroy North Korea which was captured by the global media. His longer more nuanced and complex critique was on the Iranian regime. His critique of the ongoing Iranian nuclear deal has already created shock waves among the European partners of the deal.  

There were some clear signals from Trumps speech, what the global media has extracted are a few audacious ones, yet if one carefully goes through Trump’s Speech, there are a set of interesting points of departures from American foreign policy of the last 70 years. Trump’s debut at the UNGA was the first real detailed outlining of his foreign policy as well as his world view. Trump’s world view is shared by quite a number of current and emerging global leaders, who argue for a return to nationalism as bedrock of policy making.  

Trump seems to be addressing a cohort of like-minded leaders who has emerged within the last five years and even leaders who are drifting towards embracing rigid and strict forms of nationalism. Thus from Poland, India, Russia, to Japan the call for return to emphasis on state sovereignty resonates well with its incumbent leadership. Trump in his speech declared, ‘As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.’ And another significant statement was ‘Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism’  

While it is appealing given the current political transformations and the inherent problems of democratic regimes, Trump clearly takes aim at signalling a new era in American foreign policy which will not develop a robust global governance architecture. Instead Trump believes that forums like United Nations is to discuss issues but with strong domestic compulsions. Trump’s United States is looking at a much weaker, less able, less bureaucratic, intergovernmental organization.   

The United States has achieved a forceful confession from the United Nations; its new Secretary General António Guterres acknowledged the need for reform. Trump’s ideas about UN reforms and Guterres sense are very different. Many analysts were appalled when Trump called for the ‘destruction of North Korea’, and many blamed Trump for his inexperience and irresponsibility. Yet a deeper discursive analysis would reveal that rather than the intention to wipe out Korea, Trump’s intention was demonstrate that the UN forums can be used to popularize ideas such as war, violence and such acts or initiatives can be normalized backed by rhetoric.  

Thus the current United States regime has managed to open spaces for leaders like Benjamin Netanyahu, General Sisi, Tayyip Erdogan to feel comfortable when they drive forceful narratives about the existence of rogue states and the necessity to stop such evil. Trump’s speech had that effect, thus the theme of the UNGA this year is upended when the head of the United States is articulating power in pure military sense by referring to increased military spending of the US to providing a singular option to deal with all adversaries of the United States, the use of force.   

The speech was a well devised attack on liberal internationalism which was the guiding ideology and operational theory of global affairs the in the last 30 years. Instead Trump introduces the notion of ‘Principled Realism’. The United Nations that was conceived as a peaceful mechanism of coexistence since the end of the World War II might be going through a period of radical transition. American political scientist Joseph Nye disagrees, he claims in a recent opinion piece the structural dimension of American politics is rooted in such a way that Trump will not be able to change the foundations and pillars of American foreign policy any soon.  

While the UNGA is going through such turmoil, Germany is bracing for its general elections. Merkel is the favourite to win the elections. Thus for the German Chancellor who in her address to the congress during her visit to the United States in 2009 passionately disclosed her love and passion for the ‘American Dream’ is now seen by many globalists, institutional liberalists as a the only leader who is capable of facing up to the challenges of rising nationalism. Merkel is endowed with the spirit of defiance; she defied her Eastern roots to be the first woman to be a Chancellor in Germany.  

She is perceived as the only leader who has not wavered in front of an aggressive Russia and the Russian President Putin. Accounting for nearly 20% of the European Union’s GDP and with a larger manufacturing base than the United States and possesses one of the world’s largest surpluses in its current accounts, Berlin has for a while been the indispensable heart of the European Project but Merkel is reluctant for any form of German writ large in the name of defending the Project or the Union. She was quick to disagree with Trump mainly on Iran but has not delved into a serious critique about the American leader’s stance on the crucial nuclear deal.  

Donald Trump in his speech did not mention a single thing about Russia or Putin, or make any allusions to Russia indirectly. Thus it is becoming evident that Trump is trying hard to define the contours of a global threat that according to him is the primary threat confronting the Unites States in the 21st Century. Out of the great powers in the world no leader came forward to defend the status quo, there was no real defender of the liberal international order.   

This led to Javier Solana former NATO Secretary General to quickly come up with a opinion piece titled ‘The Global Leadership vacuum’, questioning the ability of current international order to maintain any order to deal with the crucial global challenges from the North Korean nuclear crisis to the global climate debate. Trump’s comments ignited a no holds barred cage fight, heralding a shrinking and weak role for the United Nations. This relegation is analogous to a referee in wrestle mania who gets to do less while being hit on the head.  

The writer is the Director, Bandaranaike Centre for International Studies (BCIS)

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