In a press conference at the United Nations today, Secretary General Antonio Guterres appealed to the laws of physics to explain why American leadership, despite some recent moves by Donald Trump, is still something for which the world pines.
“When someone leaves space, that space is always occupied by others,” he said. “And so I believe that if the United States disengages in relation to many aspects of foreign policy and many aspects of international relations, it will be unavoidable that other actors will occupy that space. And I don’t think this is good for the United States and I don’t think this is good for the world.”
This was the Secretary General’s first full press conference since Donald Trump announced the US was pulling out of the Paris Agreement and since the White House released a budget request that would significantly reduce US funding for the United Nations. What is notable about this statement is that despite these moves by the Trump administration, the UN Secretary General is explicitely stating that American leadership — and specifically American leadership — is still crucial to the world order upon which the United Nations sits. Moreover, he suggests that would-be pretenders to throne (which he does not name but which UN experts deduce is a veiled reference to China) would be less beneficial to a world order.
It is no doubt that some recent decisions by the Trump administration, including closing the door on refugees, the Paris climate pullout and the sharp reduction in diplomacy and development are damaging America’s leadership around the world. But at least according to the United Nations Secretary General, American leadership is still the sine qua non of world order.