Did Greta Thunberg upstage Trump?
John Fritze and Deirdre Shesgreen
Published 5:00 AM EDT Sep 24, 2019
NEW YORK – For two years, world leaders meeting at the United Nations have tiptoed around an unconventional U.S. president who stormed into town, touted his “America first” foreign policy and left allies uncertain about what he would do next.
This year there are signs the world is taking a new tack with President Donald Trump.
As in the past, Trump arrived at the United Nations riding a cloud of controversy – this time centered on whether he pressured Ukraine officials to launch a probe of Democratic rival Joe Biden. And White House aides said Trump would once again hammer away on a theme of sovereignty when he addresses the General Assembly on Tuesday.
But as he breezed into the U.N. complex Monday and up to the cameras, there was an ominous sign for the president. Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old climate activist, was seen glowering in the background of the camera frame. She wouldn’t stay there for long.
Thunberg drew worldwide headlines for her remarks at a Climate Action Summit that some read as a sign that other leaders were getting on with the work of hashing out the world’s problems, with or without Trump.
Trump has been pushing the U.S. to the sidelines of the U.N., questioning the institution’s value while reinforcing Washington’s supremacy in the world, experts say. But that has left other leaders with an opportunity to pick up the ball themselves, said Stewart Patrick, an expert on global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations.
“They’ve heard his talking points,” Patrick said.
“But it turns out that the people on the field would like to continue playing the game.”
Trump first arrived at the U.N. in 2017, threatening to upend relations with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. Last year he urged the world to step up pressure on Iran and join him in abandoning the nuclear agreement signed with Tehran in 2015. He has also lamented what he describes as unfair trade agreements with allies and foes.
All of those problems still remain today.
Trump will address the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday in what will be one of the summit’s most closely watched speeches. Last year Trump faced an awkward moment when the hall erupted into laughter – and later applause – when he trotted out a campaign-trail line about his accomplishments.
The president said Monday that Iran will be a major focus of his address.
Trump is also set to meet with several world leaders , including new British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and the president of Iraq, Barham Salih.
Thunberg was solemn and grim-faced as she delivered harsh words to the U.N. Climate Action Summit. She spoke moments after U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres delivered an impassioned plea to the world to rein in carbon emissions.
Thunberg: ‘The eyes of future generations are on you,’ activist tells UN Climate Summit
“This is all wrong. I shouldn’t be up here, I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean,” the Swedish teen said.
After signaling for weeks that he would skip it, Trump unexpectedly showed up at the climate summit. The president didn’t speak and stayed for about 14 minutes, sitting next to Vice President Mike Pence as other world leaders talked from the podium. Trump then left to host an event on religious freedom, which appeared to be aimed as much at his supporters in battleground presidential states as a global audience.
Trump and White House aides billed the event as the first time an American president convened such a meeting at the U.N. Critics scoffed because of Trump’s immigration travel restrictions against predominantly Muslim countries and other policies.
“The United States is founded on the principle that our rights do not come from government,” Trump said in remarks that lasted 12 minutes. “They come from God.”
The climate summit wasn’t the only U.N.-organized event that put Trump in an awkward spot. A summit on universal health care came despite the Trump administration’s years long effort to repeal Obamacare. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar joined with other countries at that event to argue abortions are not a universal right.
European leaders, meanwhile, will gather Thursday for a summit focused on multilateralism – or the idea of countries working together to solve global problems. Trump has derided the idea of multilateralism in favor of one-one-one negotiations.
Personalized foreign policy
Martin S. Edwards, associate professor and chairman of Seton Hall University’s School of Diplomacy and International Relations, said the U.N. and its member countries are not letting Trump steal the show – at least not entirely.
“It’s pretty clear that the UN has normalized this president,” he said.
“It is clear that Secretary General Guterres and other members are aggressively moving ahead on their agenda whether the U.S. wants to participate or not,” Edwards said.
Trump’s supporters argue the president’s moves are disorienting for some world leaders because his approach is so different from the one they would take. Of course, that was part of the reason the president got elected in the first place, they said.
“You have a president now who has completely personalized foreign policy,” Chris Christie, the former governor of New Jersey and one-time Trump adviser, said at a forum on leadership taking place alongside the U.N. meeting in New York.
“He believes that if he gets into any room with any person in the world, that he can convince them of his point of view, regardless of what the history is, regardless of what the current circumstances are, regardless of what he may have said in the past,” Christie said. “And this is I think very different than any foreign policy we’ve had in the past.”
But Edwards argued that Trump’s unusual approach, and the sense that some have that it amounts to U.S. disengagement, may come at a price. He noted that China has ramped up its U.N. diplomacy as American influence in New York recedes.
“It leaves the playing field open for other countries,” he said.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise, Janet Wilson, Maureen Groppe