Drinking Through America’s Global Decline at the World Cup for IR Nerds
Beer in New York City
The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA)—the World Cup for IR nerds and New York City’s annual gridlocked, diplomatic, securitized circus of oft-cursed proportions—kicked off its high-level week on Monday. Hundreds of heads of state made their way to midtown Manhattan to deliver important foreign policy speeches and address the most pressing international issues of the moment.
As helicopters of various types buzzed overhead and roadblocks and checkpoints went up to protect the assembled world leaders, diplomats, journalists, celebrity ambassadors, and protesters that joined the fray, everybody braced themselves for Donald Trump’s maiden UNGA visit.
I’ve worked on public diplomacy issues at the UN for more than a decade now, but never experienced an UNGA like this. I’m sitting in a nearby bar having some beers, and trying to decompress from what I’ve seen over the past few days.
The week started off well, encouraging even, as a subdued Trump—after immediately mentioning one of his real estate deals—managed to read some words off a page without insulting anyone or causing any diplomatic incidents during a brief Monday high-level session on UN reform.
Alongside UN Secretary-General António Guterres there were smiles and compliments. For a brief moment, there was a sense that Trump’s presence, his proposed USD $19 billion budget cuts to the UN and wholesale attacks on the UN’s raison d’être of peace through multilateral diplomacy might not be as bad as originally feared, or cause the wholesale embarrassment of the United States on the biggest global stage.
This sense was wrong.
When Trump took the podium on Tuesday morning, he unleashed a contradictory and belligerent speech that will be talked about for all of the wrong reasons at the UN for years to come. He threatened to “totally destroy North Korea,” a clear war crime. He advanced regime change in Iran and Venezuela after rambling repetitiously about state sovereignty. Unlike nearly every other world leader, he said nothing about climate change.
Meanwhile, across First Avenue, in a space that has become affectionately known this time of year as Protest Park, anti-Zionist Rabbis from Brooklyn protested the state of Israel; Togolese expatriates railed against monarchy; Egyptians hoisted posters depicting General Sisi as an American marionette; Falun Dafa members calmly executed tai chi postures in defiance of China; a group of activists denounced “colonialism from Puerto Rico to Palestine”; and dozens of green-clad Dominicans—who brought a bachata-blasting boombox—demanded accountability from government corruption.
On Wednesday afternoon, Trump bundled through a meeting with African leaders where he gave a shout out to Nambia, a country that doesn’t actually exist (and lacks the strong leadership of neighboring Zamunda).
And, in a tone-deaf throwback to the golden days of colonialism, bragged about his “many friends” going to Africa “to get rich.”
By Wednesday night, drinking was definitely in order. So I found myself contemplating the sharp decline of American soft power, and this country’s place in an increasingly volatile world, alongside a colleague from the UN Department of Political Affairs. We commiserated on the insanity of UN Week and Trump’s dark, disastrous visit over some much-needed beers in a firefighter dive bar a few blocks from the UN.
As the flashing red lights of the heavily armed security details of various departing leaders illuminated Second Avenue, my colleague told me that her department was equally disturbed by Trump’s speech, but at the same time, not entirely surprised.
“No one expected too much from him; but they were still shocked by what he said about North Korea.”
At this point, not many people at the UN, or in the world, see the United States as a constructive, or even credible, player on the global stage.
An America First policy that shuns multilateralism and actively advocates discord, division, and conflict has seemingly erased any goodwill Obama’s State Department may have built at the UN after eight calamitous Bush years. The US is now totally isolated on climate change, on Iran, and is doing its best to usurp North Korea as the main threat to peace and security in northeast Asia.
I took another sip of ale, came to the demoralizing realization that there will be three, or possibly seven, more Trump-at-the-UN visits, and immediately ordered another round.