Diplomacy in defensive mode: Trump returns to the UN General Assembly

NEW YORK, Helen Corbett (dpa)- Turkey's Erdogan, Iran's Rowhani and new faces from New Zealand and Zimbabwe are set to take to the podium at the biggest event in the diplomatic calendar this September. But the focus will fall again on US President Donald Trump, as leaders look set to defend global deals he has ditched - and avoid being the next 'rocket man' - in his second year at the UN General Assembly.

The United Nations' annual General Assembly is the biggest event in the diplomatic calendar, where world leaders take to the podium to give speeches and rub shoulders at bilateral meetings on the sidelines.
Among the new faces are Zimbabwe's Emmerson Mnangagwa, whose predecessor, Robert Mugabe, had been a familiar fixture at the General Assembly since 1978.
New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, the second leader of a government to give birth in office, will bring her 3-month-old baby, Neve, to New York with her.
The US traditionally takes centre stage as second on the roster. And all eyes will be on US President Donald Trump this year - but for all the wrong reasons - as he makes his second speech at the event.
The novelty factor of Trump's debut appearance last year has worn off; what's left is the worry that he will behave just as badly as at the G7 and NATO summits, according to UN expert Richard Gowan, a senior fellow at UN university who has also worked at NYU and Columbia.
"Everyone’s nightmare scenario is that he’s going to repeat his behaviour at NATO and start calling out other countries for not paying enough to the UN and threaten to cut off funding," Gowan says.
There’s also the possibility of him getting into spats with Turkey’s Recep Tayipp Erdogan or Iran’s Hassan Rowhani - both of whom are on bad terms with Trump and due to deliver speeches on the same day.
Even past diplomatic successes for Trump - mainly his June Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un - might not resonate so much. There were wild hopes that the summit might bring Kim Jong Un to the UN General Assembly for the first time, but Pyongyang plans to send a minister to deliver their address.
North Korea is "the ghost at the feast," says Gowan.
Still, that might be an upgrade. In Trump's maiden speech last year, he threatened to "totally destroy" North Korea and called the leader of the rogue nuclear nation "rocket man."
The White House announced that Pyongyang recently sent Trump a letter requesting another meeting, which could be an attempt to placate the president and prevent Kim being the target of his speech again.
And US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo offered to meet his North Korean counterpart on the sidelines following a positive meeting last week between Kim and South Korea's President Moon Jae In.
But, according to Gowan, the Iran nuclear deal is likely to be this year’s "lightning rod issue" for Trump.
Trump will chair a UN Security Council meeting, originally billed as focusing on "Iran's destabilizing aggression and sponsorship of terrorism."
The agenda has since been broadened, in what appears to be an attempt to stop Trump facing off against Rowhani directly. Under the UN charter, a meeting focused on Iran would entitle Tehran to speak in the meeting.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley hyped up the meeting in Trumpian terms in the week ahead as she set out the president's UN priorities. "I’m sure it will be most watched Security Council meeting ever."
Rumours that Trump would set out his long-awaited Middle East peace plan were extinguished by US ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, who said the plan was close to be being finished, but would not be rolled out during the week of high-level meetings.
Syria is sure to be on the agenda in bilateral meetings, as world leaders have spent the last few weeks making impassioned pleas to Moscow and Bashar al-Assad's government to avoid a bloody battle over Idlib, Syria's last rebel stronghold.
In their speeches, world leaders are likely to call for continued support for multilateral deals that Trump has abandoned, like the Paris climate accord and the Iran deal.
Ministers and UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres will meet to discuss the financing crisis at UN's Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, after the US recently announced they would cut all funding to it.
Guterres, a staunch advocate of the Paris agreement, is holding a meeting on climate change. He has pledged to lobby leaders when they come to New York and called on governments to "break the paralysis" of environmental inaction.
The UN chief also said he would use his meetings to press for renewed commitment to a rules-based global order and the "indispensible" United Nations.
"Multilateralism is under attack from many different directions precisely when we need it most," Guterres said, but declined to name Trump.
"I don't like to personalize things," the diplomat said.
In previous years, leaders agreed on goals for development and pledged commitments to a refugee compact.
"There used to be a sense that the General Assembly session was really a moment where decisions were made. Now everyone is just in defensive mode," says Gowan.
"It doesn’t really feel like anyone has any great ambitions for it other than coming out alive."

Saturday, September 22nd 2018
Helen Corbett (dpa)

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