In the middle of September world leaders took the podium in the General Assembly hall, setting their agendas for the UNGA’s 72nd Session. While headlines focused on President Donald Trump’s harsh words responding to the accelerated missile tests by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), the convention of world leaders provided key insights into nations’ ideas about multilateral approaches to international challenges. French President Emmanuel Macron, for instance, stated boldly that, “we can only address our challenges through multilateralism,” a stark contrast to President Trump’s promise to “[r]enew th[e] founding principle of sovereignty” in international relations. Trump’s sentiment, however, was echoed in the remarks of various other leaders.
Surveying the speeches of the Security Council “Permanent 5” nations—as well as Israel, Germany, the DPRK, and the UN Secretary General António Guterres—most UNGA speeches focused on nuclear non-proliferation, terrorism, and global migration. Each nation emphasized how multilateral action could be used to address these issues. Two poles emerged: 1) multilateralism as the only way forward and 2) sovereignty as the only way to begin the conversation.
Non-Proliferation in DPRK
The DPRK response to Trump’s promise of total destruction emphasized the continued US military presence in the region and the increase in active exercises off the Korean peninsula. DPRK Foreign Minister Ri Young Ho stated unequivocally that until US aggression stops, the DPRK will continue with its nuclear program as a means of self-preservation. Ri even went so far as to call for a “new international system of justice” that addresses the real politik underpinnings of current international organizations.
While the promise of unilateral action and total destruction occupied headlines around the world, most nations advocated strongly for global (or at least regional) negotiation to deescalate tensions between the US and the DPRK. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi emphasized the success of the 2007 “six-party talks,” which successfully brought the US and the DPRK to the negotiation table. Meanwhile Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov reiterated the new Russia-China roadmap, signaling Russia’s strategic pivot to Asia and heightened investment in the outcome of any denuclearization deal with the DPRK. Lavrov’s speech, however, was tinged with the real politik he decried, as he simultaneously advocated for “dialogue” to “save us from the scourge of war” while pushing back on the 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty as “blinding ourselves to the realities of stability.”
Beyond the regional interest in DPRK, United Kingdom Prime Minister Theresa May, highlighted the recent success of the UN Security Council in tightening sanctions on DPRK. She called it an example of “limited self-interest” that “live[d] up to the special responsibility” of P5-status and “fostered collective action,” echoing UN Secretary General Guterres language of the “special responsibility” of P5 members to act multilaterally. However, her allusions to multilateral solutions ended with a direct, arguably threatening, message to the North Korean regime that, “our determination to uphold [multilateral] values are stronger than your determination to undermine them.”
With flash points in nearly every region of the world, every surveyed UNGA speech addressed terrorism at length. UN Secretary General António Guterres emphasized that “no one is winning today’s wars,” as the global threat of terrorism is “diverting energy from other pursuits” and requires “stronger international cooperation.” Macron was quick to offer this cooperation with new French leadership in European counter-terrorism missions in Syria and working with African nations to address the social and economic causes of radicalization. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel echoed Macron’s strong multilateral approach going so far as to say that the German policy is one and the same as the European policy, that “we don’t lose sovereignty, but gain new sovereignty that we could not have had on our own.”
May took a different tact, emphasizing the five terrorist attacks her nation had suffered in 2017 and asserting that “states have critical responsibilities in addressing terrorism that the UN alone cannot address.” In May’s view, the “individual nations” and their power was the basis of any multilateral action against terrorism. May’s approach to terrorism recalls Trump’s words about the power of the UN—that the “success of the UN depends on the independent strength of its members.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a similar approach but noted that not all international cooperation meant uniformed alliances, that each nation can learn from the others’ experiences and that many nations now use Israel’s anti-terrorism technology.
Western nations seem to remain committed to multilateral action but are now more open to newer forms of joint action. Cultural initiatives to stem radicalization and technology sharing to stop terrorist attacks may now constitute a new form of multilateral action. Especially given the new UN anti-terrorism committee as a platform for sharing best practices.
UN Secretary General Guterres identified “human mobility” as one of the leading threats to world peace today and emphasized the balance between a nation’s sovereign right to control its border with its responsibility to do this “with an eye towards protecting those on the move.” Global migration has been fueled by refugees fleeing prolonged conflicts in the Middle East as well as economic migration for the prospect of a better future. Not surprisingly, nearly every surveyed nation at the UNGA spoke about what some called a “crisis” and others called a “challenge.”
Some speakers, including Macron and Guterres, focused on addressing the problems that migration produces such as sexual exploitation, human trafficking, and poverty among immigrant communities. May, echoed by Trump, highlighted the threat unchecked migration poses for “liberalism” and “free trade” as some nations are pushed towards protectionism by their citizens. Macron’s approach, however, acknowledged both the concerns of his own citizens about French culture being undermined and the aspiration of responsible migration Guterres set forth. He specifically pledged to “open routes for refugees” and “bring African nations together to combat trafficking” with a specific 0.55 percent pledge of public development aid funds over the next 5 years to be put toward this cause. Other nations did not go into detail about their migration policy and merely raised the issue as a challenge.
The Future of Multilateralism
No nation espoused a hardline, isolationist ideology at the UNGA, but every speech except for Germany’s criticized multilateralism as it currently stands. May went so far as to attach administrative conditions to 30% of the UK’s contributions to the UN—the funds only being dispersed to specific agencies that “meet expectations,” though she did not articulate whose expectations. Russia and DPRK both criticized the ingrained real politik of the UN in which theoretically equal sovereigns carry unequal power within the organization. Yet hope remains for multilateralism. The multilateral aspirations of UN Secretary General Guterres were fortified by the specific policy promises of France, Germany, Israel, and China. Germany is seeking a seat on the Security Council in the 2019-20 term, and China views the UN as a facilitator of legitimate action around the world. Even nations that emphasized “renewing th[e] founding principle of sovereignty,” like the US and UK, maintain a strong emphasis on multilateral UN action. Multilateral action must only be grounded in an understanding that individual nations’ interests should not be discounted, which is perhaps simply a more explicit, realistic conception of how multilateralism had already been employed. Perhaps most striking is the sense of continuity that each speech established. Whether it was Germany reference to John F. Kennedy’s understanding of nuclear weapons or China’s reaffirmation of President Xi Jinping’s “win-win cooperation” stance from 2015, sovereignty may be the starting point, but multilateralism may still remain the only way forward.
Eric Lenier Ives studies law at Columbia Law School. He was a Fulbright Scholar in Germany after graduating from New York University and has worked at the United Nations and U.S. Department of State.