At the UN General Assembly, Trump and Xi Square Off — And Guterres Makes Plea for Common Sense to Prevail

It was always going to be a UN General Assembly like no other, with world leaders delivering pre-recorded remarks which played in the mostly empty UN General Assembly hall.

And then, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres opened UNGA on a decidedly apocalyptic note:

“In January, I addressed the General Assembly and identified ‘four horsemen’ in our midst — four threats that endanger our common future. First, the highest global geo-strategic tensions in years. Second, an existential climate crisis. Third, deep and growing global mistrust. And fourth, the dark side of the digital world. But a fifth horseman was lurking in the shadows.

Since January, the COVID-19 pandemic has galloped across the globe – joining the four other horsemen and adding to the fury of each.”

Guterres also predicted — and sought to defuse —  the big drama of the day and the coming years:  confrontation between China and the United States.

“The world needs a global ceasefire to stop all “hot” conflicts, ” said Guterres. “At the same time, we must do everything to avoid a new Cold War. We are moving in a very dangerous direction. Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a Great Fracture — each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities. A technological and economic divide risks inevitably turning into a geo-strategic and military divide. We must avoid this at all costs.”

Alas, both Donald Trump and Xi Jinping used the virtual UNGA platform to take potshots at each other.

“We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China,” said Donald Trump in a brief speech that lasted about 7 minutes.  “In the earliest days of the virus, China locked down travel domestically while allowing flights to leave China and infect the world.  China condemned my travel ban on their country, even as they cancelled domestic flights and locked citizens in their homes.”

Trump also used his speech denigrate the World Health Organization, alleging it to be under the thumb of Beijing. “The Chinese government and the World Health Organization — which is virtually controlled by China — falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission.  Later, they falsely said people without symptoms would not spread the disease.  The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.”

In fact, before Trump withdrew the United States from the World Health Organization the US was by far the most powerful player at the WHO and also the single largest funder. One of the big tragedies of Trump’s decision to pull out of the WHO is that causes traditionally championed by the USA, like Polio eradication may experience profound setback.

For his part, President Xi sounded magnanimous compared to Donald Trump. Xi plainly used the juxtaposition of this virtual UNGA amid a pandemic to make a play for global leadership and seeking to fill the void left by the United States — even as China undertakes a massive human rights violations against the Uighurs, suppresses dissent, and cracks down on civil society in Hong Kong.

“We should mobilize all resources…no cases should be missed and no cases untreated,” said Xi. “Facing the virus, we should enhance solidarity and get through this together.” Xi also pledged that any COVID-19 vaccine developed in China would be made available as a global public good and provided to developing countries.

Notably, Xi did not express support for the COVAX Facility — a  global cooperative effort to develop and equitably distribute a COVID-19 vaccine that is supported by over 150 countries, excluding the US.

This UN General Assembly marks the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, which was born out of the great power conflict of World War Two.

Indeed, the opening lines of the pre-amble of the UN Charter directly invoke the tragedy from which the UN was born. “We the people of the United Nations, determined to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind,” it reads.

As Antonio Guterres remarked during the official commemoration of the 75th anniversary the day prior, perhaps the UN’s most important impact in world history is that there has not been a third world war in the last 75 years. But avoiding conflict between major powers takes work and continued investment in peace. Peace is not foreordained. In fact, International Relations theory would suggest that as a rising power seeks to displace a declining power, war is a likely outcome.

Right now, the prospect of increasing tensions between the United States and China leading to outright conflict may seem remote. But it takes an institution like the United Nations to create conditions for the kind of diplomacy that might preclude conflict.

Investing in the institution of the United Nations is an investment in peace — and a downpayment on keeping the other two horsemen of the apocalypse in their stable.