Ninety-one heads of state and 45 heads of government are among the dozens of delegations convening in midtown Manhattan. There are some notable absences: Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — on the cusp of losing power — are all skipping the week’s meetings.
President Trump will speak on Tuesday morning from the dais of the General Assembly for the third time of his tenure. He will probably reiterate his skepticism about an international system anchored by the United Nations and its agencies, long the bete noire of U.S. conservatives.
“I do think it is fair to say that this administration is applying new levels of scrutiny to the U.N. and other bodies to assess their effectiveness against the billions of dollars provided by the American taxpayer,” Kelly Craft, Trump’s recently installed envoy to the United Nations, told my colleague Carol Morello. She spoke of “looking ahead to remind the other nations of the U.N. that the United States isn’t going anywhere” and that U.S. diplomats will “press for real action” to advance human rights, women’s empowerment and other global causes.
This time for Trump, his sojourn at the United Nations could be a welcome reprieve from the uproar in Washington over his apparent attempt to enlist a foreign government (in this instance, that of Ukraine) in his bid to win reelection at home. On Monday, Trump grumbled at the “crooked as hell” news media in appearances alongside the leaders of Poland and Pakistan. But Trump’s theatrics are hardly the only ones to watch this week. Here’s a rundown of the main story lines to follow.
A world without Trump: Before the high-level speeches began on Tuesday, the president declined the chance to participate or speak in two major Monday sessions on the climate and universal health care. Given Trump’s positions — he sees both global climate activism and domestic moves to reform health care as leftist plots that would harm the American economy — the decision to skip was almost certainly for ideological reasons.
But the rest of the world, least of all U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, is no longer in the mood to oblige him. “In 2017 and 2018, world leaders seemed nervous about offending Trump or even launching initiatives he might dislike,” Richard Gowan, U.N. director at the International Crisis Group, told Today’s WorldView. “This year is different. Guterres and a large group of states decided to make a big push on climate change despite U.S. disengagement on the issue. The world has decided that it has to try to make multilateralism work without the U.S. if it must.”
Guterres has spent months building up attention to the climate deliberations this week, warning the world that it faced an “apocalyptic” future. “The climate emergency is a race we are losing but it is a race we can win,” he said.
All of their statements and commitments were overshadowed by Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, who was the star of proceedings. She took the stage at the United Nations and upbraided the political elites in her midst for their “empty words” and focus on “money and fairy tales and eternal economic growth.”
“You are failing us,” she said. “Young people are beginning to understand your betrayal. If you choose to fail us, we will never forgive you.”
Many other figures — from multinational chief executives to U.S. governors — are expected to keep the climate conversation going through the week. But they’ll have no help from the American president. Trump, who appeared only briefly at the climate session, dodged Thunberg’s scolding but did not evade her laserlike stare when the two passed each other in the corridors of the United Nations.
In a bit of counterprogramming, Trump presided over a meeting on “religious freedom,” a key plank of his administration’s foreign policy messaging in the past couple of years. But Trump’s efforts were met with a degree of cynicism, with critics noting that the president who campaigned on a vow to block Muslims immigrating to the United States was an unusual champion of religious pluralism.
The Iran affair: As has been the case for the past half-decade of U.N. confabs, all eyes will be on what does (or does not) happen between the American and Iranian delegations. A few weeks ago, there was plenty of speculation that Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani could even sit down for a shock meeting, no matter the opposition to such rapprochement in both Washington and Tehran.
But then an Iran-suspected attack on a major Saudi oil facility plunged the region into crisis and seemed to doom any prospect of a Rouhani-Trump sit-down. The perceived threat posed by Iran will probably feature in American and Saudi speeches this week, including Trump’s Tuesday address.
“The worst-case scenario is that Trump goes on a rhetorical rampage against Tehran similar to his ‘little Rocket Man’ attack on Kim Jong Un in 2017,” suggested Gowan, adding that Trump “has so far leaned toward restraint.”
But both sides appear to be digging in their heels. Rouhani will outline a very different vision of Middle East security on Wednesday than Trump the day prior. Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative on Iran, told reporters Monday that the United States hoped diplomacy and “pragmatism would prevail.” But he also decried Tehran’s “revolutionary expansionism” and pointed to increasing evidence that the Iranians were more isolated and enfeebled after Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign than in previous years.
“We are resisting an unprovoked aggression by the United States,” Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif told NPR’s Steve Inskeep. “I can assure you that the United States will not be able to bring us to our knees through pressure.”
Some other speeches: Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Trump’s hemispheric far-right comrade, shrugged off the advice of aides concerned about his recovery from a surgical procedure and will open proceedings Tuesday morning. The global controversy around his nationalist government’s handling of fires in the Amazon will make his speech — his biggest international address since delivering a dud at the World Economic Forum in January — rather compelling. In an open letter, a group of Brazilian indigenous leaders decried Bolsonaro’s “colonialist and ethnocidal” policies.
In another major geopolitical set-piece, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan are expected to lash into each other over Kashmir, cross-border terrorism and other long-standing grievances dividing the South Asian rivals.
Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi — hailed jokingly by Trump as his “favorite dictator” — will speak at the General Assembly even as protests against his iron-fisted rule continue in Cairo. And Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will take the stage Wednesday and is also slated to meet Trump, an encounter that will probably be mobbed by the Washington press corps.