The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump cuts a lonely figure at the U.N.

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President Trump’s address before the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday will underscore a now-familiar message: American sovereignty and supremacy are not to be challenged, nor is Washington’s right to act unilaterally on the world stage.

Trump, as readers of Today’s WorldView know, has acted according to those principles since taking office last year. He has sparked trade disputes with close allies, cast doubt upon traditional alliances in the West, withdrawn the United States from global agreements such as the Paris climate accords and upset the apple cart at multilateral summits like this year’s meeting of the Group of Seven nations. His public appearances have often sounded like the campaign rally he held last week in Las Vegas, where he attacked the “globalism” of his political enemies and linked liberal internationalism to economic hardship at home.

“The forces opposing us in Washington are the same people who squandered trillions of dollars overseas, who sacrificed our sovereignty, who shipped away our jobs, who oversaw the greatest transfer of wealth in the history of the world,” Trump said. “In 2016, the American people voted to reject this corrupt globalism. Hey, I’m the president of the United States — I’m not the president of the globe.”

Such rhetoric, when delivered from the dais of the General Assembly chamber, was a shock last year. But as Trump makes his second appearance at the United Nations as president, no world leader or foreign dignitary will be surprised to hear more of the same.

The key question is whether Trump is an outlier — or the new normal.

"Many foreign policy experts, and most of the foreign leaders pouring into New York this week for the United Nations’ General Assembly, have been counting on the former,” wrote Robert Kagan, a prominent Washington neoconservative and the author of a new book on America’s waning role in the world. “They place their hopes on the 2020 elections to get America back on its old path. But they may have to start facing the fact that what we’re seeing today is not a spasm but a new direction in American foreign policy, or rather a return to older traditions — the kind that kept us on the sidelines while fascism and militarism almost conquered the world.”

Of course, Kagan’s rosy view of the Pax Americana is hardly a universal one. But there’s increasing consensus on the negative effects of Trump’s bruising approach.

For one, U.S. allies, once willing to follow America’s lead, are increasingly forging their own paths, building new partnerships independent of Washington and, at times, even acting against the Trump administration’s plans. On trade, Canada, the European Union and Japan have all stepped up their cooperation. Initiatives to tackle climate change — a cause for which Trump has repeatedly expressed disdain — will be raised by numerous world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who will convene a special session on the future of the planet.

President Trump met with French President Emmanuel Macron on Sept. 24 to discuss a wide-range of issues ahead of the United Nations General Assembly. (Video: Reuters)

Trump probably will receive minimal support when he chairs a Security Council session Wednesday, where he is expected to berate Iran — every other permanent member of the council was opposed to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal with Tehran. Diplomats at the United Nations have also objected to the White House’s other attacks on U.N. bodies, including its defunding of the U.N.'s Palestinian-aid agency and threats leveled at the International Criminal Court.

“For the first time in history, America will find itself consistently isolated on major issues before the Security Council,” wrote Brett Bruen, a former director of global engagement for the Obama White House. “That’s a role more commonly played by the likes of Russia or China. Sure, there were a few cases in the past when it had been in the minority on matters like Israel or Iraq. But, it has never struggled to rally a majority behind most of our diplomatic agenda.”

As Trump’s bullying grabs attention, experts say a stealthy realignment is slowly taking place.

“Diplomats in New York see two major political trends reshaping the organization. The first is the U.S. systematically and loudly distancing itself from U.N. bodies and initiatives it doesn’t like,” wrote Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at the United Nations University Center for Policy Research in New York. “The second is the focus with which China is gaining power and influence [at U.N. headquarters]. America’s voluble president may own the podium at the General Assembly, but quietly, in the windowless committee rooms of the U.N., Chinese diplomats are busy reshaping the ground rules of international cooperation to Beijing’s liking.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping won’t be in New York this week, but his absence is in no way an expression of indifference. Gowan points to the steady work of Chinese diplomats in various U.N. chambers, advancing “a vision of international development and cooperation that rivals the American-led global order” and “helps the expansion of China’s economic and ideological influence.” Trump’s noisy hectoring only deepens China’s appeal to a host of other countries.

The irony is that the Trump administration — by turning to what Kagan described as the “older traditions” of great-power rivalries — is speaking in a language “that Beijing understands,” reported my colleague David Nakamura.

“Since taking office in 2012, Xi has aimed to return China to a dominant role in Asia, a strategy he touted as the ‘Chinese Dream,’” Nakamura wrote. “In doing so, Xi has sought to elbow the United States and other global powers out of what Beijing considers China’s sovereign claims, which its leaders call ‘core interests.’” This includes a more assertive position in the South China Sea, perhaps the most crucial shipping corridor in the world.

“The United States had long sought to manage China’s rise by pressuring it to become a more responsible global player and engage in multilateral institutions,” Nakamura added. “Now it is the Trump administration that is turning away.”

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