UN cautions against populism in high-level week

Edith M. Lederer and Jennifer Peltz
Associated Press

United Nations – Warning that the world has a bad case of “trust deficit disorder” and risks “runaway climate change,” U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged global leaders Tuesday to abandon unilateralism and reinvigorate cooperation as the only way to tackle the challenges and threats of increasingly chaotic times.

The U.N. chief painted a grim picture of the state of the world in his opening address to the annual gathering of presidents, prime ministers, monarchs and government officials from the U.N.’s 193 member nations. He pointed to rising polarization and populism, ebbing cooperation, “fragile” trust in international institutions and “outrage” at the inability to end wars in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere.

“Democratic principles are under siege,” Guterres said. “The world is more connected, yet societies are becoming more fragmented. Challenges are growing outward, while many people are turning inward. Multilateralism is under fire precisely when we need it most.”

In contrast, U.S. President Donald Trump, who spoke later in the morning, asserted American sovereignty and rejected “global governance, control and domination.” He said he expects other nations to honor America’s sovereignty in return.

Guterres highlighted two challenges that have taken on “surpassing urgency” since last year: climate change and new risks from advances in technology.

“Climate change is moving faster than we are,” he warned. “If we do not change course in the next two years, we risk runaway climate change. … Our future is at stake.”

Guterres said artificial intelligence, blockchain and biotechnology can potentially “turbocharge progress,” but also pose risks and serious dangers.

Technology stands to change or eliminate some jobs and is being misused for sexual abuse, for terrorism and for malicious acts in cyberspace including disinformation campaigns, discrimination against women and for reinforcing “our male-dominated culture,” he said.

“The weaponization of artificial intelligence is a growing concern,” he added.

General Assembly President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces opened the gathering by asking hundreds of VIPs in the chamber to stand in silent tribute to former Secretary-General Kofi Annan, who died Aug. 18 in Switzerland at age 80.

Garces, who was Ecuador’s foreign minister, echoed Guterres’ appeal on multilateralism in her welcome, saying the General Assembly is “the only place where a meeting of this kind is possible,” and where all countries “have the opportunity to hear and be heard.”

She said the U.N.’s global contribution has been immense, from international law and the promotion of peace to human rights, combatting poverty and preserving the environment.

“The reality is that the work of the United Nations is as relevant today as it was 73 years ago,” she said. “Multilateralism stands alone as the only viable response to the global problems that we are faced with. To undermine multilateralism, or to cast a doubt upon its merits, will only lead to instability and division, to mistrust and polarization.”

Brazil’s President Michel Temer also focused on threats to global cooperation.

“We live in times clouded by isolationist forces,” he said. “Old forms of intolerance are being rekindled. Unilateral relapses are, today, increasingly less of an exception.”

“However, these challenges should not and cannot possibly intimidate us. Isolationism, intolerance, unilateralism – we must respond to each of these different trends with the very best of our peoples,” Temer said.

This year, 133 world leaders have signed up to attend the General Assembly session, which ends Oct. 1, a significant increase from the 114 leaders last year.

Besides Trump, populist leaders attending this year’s meeting included Poland’s President Andrzej Duda and Italy’s Premier Giuseppe Conte, along with the foreign ministers of Hungary and Austria.

China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned at Monday’s U.N. “peace summit” honoring the 100th birthday of South African anti-apartheid campaigner Nelson Mandela that “unilateralism and protectionism are on the rise.”

He likely had Trump in mind, since the U.S. and China have been engaged in a trade war in recent months, with the two sides imposing higher tariffs on imports from each other.

Wang said “the U.N. is the symbol of multilateralism” and he urged the international community to “stand united under the umbrella of multilateralism, uphold the central role of the U.N. in international affairs, and provide more predictability and stability in this turbulent world.”

In speeches and nearly 350 meetings on the assembly sideline, the conflicts, hotspots and issues contributing to that turbulence will be debated.

The seven-year conflict in Syria and the three-year war in Yemen that has sparked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis and now seriously threatens large-scale famine are certain to be in the spotlight, along with African hotspots including Libya, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Mali and Congo.

French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to be a key voice in speaking out against unilateralism and populism, and supporting multilateralism as key to promoting peace.

Macron is scheduled to address the assembly Tuesday along with Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Jordan’s King Abdullah II.

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, whose country has been a target of escalating U.S. accusations over its nuclear and missile programs and international terrorist activities, is also on Tuesday’s speakers list. Iran vehemently denies any nuclear ambitions or involvement in international terrorism.

The U.S., which holds the rotating presidency of the U.N. Security Council in September, has scheduled two meetings, one chaired by Trump on Wednesday which was initially to focus on Iran but has now been broadened to the topic of “nonproliferation” of nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.

The second one on Thursday, to be chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is on North Korea, the one major issue where there is a glimmer of hope for progress. The 15 council nations have been united in imposing increasingly tough sanctions to try to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear program. But that unity appears to be at risk over enforcement of sanctions and the broader issues of how to achieve denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, and when sanctions should be lifted against North Korea.