Seventy-five years after its founding, the United Nations is facing an unprecedented challenge in helping countries respond to a devastating pandemic. And President Donald Trump – leader of the world’s most powerful country, which helped establish the UN – is sabotaging efforts to collectively tackle the pandemic and other threats that the UN was created to solve.
This year, the pandemic forced the UN to conduct diplomacy virtually. World leaders had to pre-record their speeches for the 75th general assembly, highlighting in stark fashion the grave challenges that all countries face today from Covid-19, as well as the tall task the UN has in marshaling an effective global coordination effort.
Trump’s pre-recorded speech was fitting for a president who has decimated US credibility like few of his predecessors: speaking into the void, Trump spun a fantastical tale of a world in which the United States is leading the charge against all manner of evil, from the pandemic to China to Iran. Like much of Trump’s rants on Twitter or on stage, his speech to the UN only made sense if you see the world as Trump does – a world where he can do no wrong, and completely divorced from the facts.
The facts, unfortunately, show a president who has exacerbated multiple crises roiling his own country, and who has made the world a more dangerous place.
Trump has purposely downplayed the pandemic and its deadliness – despite knowing better – and has refused to appropriately prepare and respond to the crisis. As a result, more than 200,000 Americans so far have died – more than 20% of the world’s recorded deaths from Covid-19 come from America, which has roughly 4% of the world’s population. And while the pandemic continues to kill Americans and people around the world, Trump’s administration has refused to participate in global efforts to fight the pandemic, whether in the World Health Organization or through collaborative efforts with other countries to develop and distribute a vaccine.
When it comes to China, Trump has only weakened America’s ability to address the real challenges that China poses. Instead of working with allies to pressure China over its trade practices, human rights abuses, or military aggression, Trump has alienated America’s allies. He launched a trade war that cost American jobs. He has withdrawn American leadership – from the UN, from the WHO, and other efforts to build and enforce norms that protect America – allowing China’s global influence to grow. And Trump has repeatedly sacrificed America’s interests to China in favor of helping himself, including by asking China’s President Xi Jinping to interfere in US politics to advantage Trump politically.
Trump, amazingly, attempted to claim that he has a good record on the environment, while the reality is that his administration has intentionally reversed gains America has made in recent years in combating climate change. From announcing that America would leave the Paris climate agreement to rolling back myriad regulations aimed at reducing carbon emissions, Trump has set the world back in its efforts to solve the planet’s most existential crisis.
Trump’s Iran policy has been counterproductive and dangerous. To kick off UN general assembly week, Trump’s top cabinet officials announced new sanctions on Iran, and in the process reminded everyone just how isolated the United States is when it comes to Iran. America’s own allies – the UK, France, and Germany – responded to the latest Trump sanctions by noting that America was no longer a member of the nuclear deal, and therefore could not invoke the deal’s terms to impose “snapback” sanctions. Since withdrawing the United States from the deal that stopped Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Iran has accelerated its program in ways that the nuclear deal had halted.
In today’s world, countries must partner to solve shared challenges. The United Nations and other multilateral organizations are where America can rally the world to take concrete action, whether it’s to reduce carbon emissions or to pressure China over its human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. The American people recognize this reality – a recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs reported that 62% of Americans believe that “the coronavirus outbreak has made it clear that it is more important for the United States to coordinate and collaborate with other countries to solve global issues.”
Instead of using these institutions to America’s advantage, Trump has attempted to tear them down, from announcing the withdrawal of the US from the WHO in the middle of a pandemic to removing the US from the Global Migration Compact amid the worst displaced persons crisis ever, to name just a couple of examples.
People around the world don’t trust Trump or Trump’s America. A recent Pew Research Center poll made clear that, in many countries considered America’s closest friends, “the share of the public with a favorable view of the US is as low as it has been at any point since the Center began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago”, and Trump has a lower approval rating than both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. When the world doesn’t respect or trust America, others won’t work with America in pursuing its goals.
The pandemic could not be a more striking illustration of how desperately the world needs a robust UN. And the consequences of the Trump administration’s rejection of multilateralism and undermining of America’s credibility abroad is a powerful reminder that principled American leadership in the UN and international bodies is essential to solving our greatest challenges.