New UN secretary general António Guterres’ first General Assembly speech resembled some tentative steps in a dance with the event’s headline attendee, Donald Trump.
The US president likely was pleased that Guterres started by highlighting Trump’s most pressing international concerns: North Korea and terrorism. He would have found some of Guterres’ dark rhetoric oddly familiar, with the former Portuguese prime minister warning that “our world is in trouble; people are hurting and angry,” that “societies are fragmented,” and that “we are a world in pieces.”
While Guterres’ broad strokes—North Korea is to be condemned, terrorism is a pressing concern—aligned with Trump’s views, he added a series of thinly veiled barbs:
“Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.” Guterres was unequivocal about the need for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, with a dismissive nod to Trump’s “fire and fury” threat: “When tensions rise, so does the chance of miscalculation; fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings. The solution must be political and this is a time for statesmanship—we must not sleepwalk into war.”
“Harsh crackdowns and heavy-handed approaches are counterproductive.” On terrorism, Guterres was clear about the need to seek for solutions beyond Trump’s calls for immigration bans and relentless war against ISIL. “It’s not enough to fight terrorists on the battlefield…we must do more to address the roots to radicalization, including real and perceived injustices,” he said, adding that “harsh crackdowns and heavy-handed approaches are counterproductive. As soon as we believe that violations of human rights and democratic freedoms are necessary to win the fight, we have lost the war.”
“The science is unassailable.” On climate change, the secretary general didn’t mince his words in front of the chief US skeptic. “We know enough today to act. The science is unassailable. I urge governments to implement the historic Paris Agreement with ever greater ambition.” Guterres used data to assert that the US, more than any other country in the world, had been ravaged by natural disasters since 1995. Since Trump’s announcement this summer that the US would withdraw from the Paris agreement, the international community has exhorted him to reconsider.
“Political figures stoke resentment in search of electoral gain.” On migration, Guterres was scathing in his indictment of rising political opposition. Noting he is a migrant himself, as are many other world leaders in attendance at the UNGA, the secretary general emphasized that safe passage cannot be limited to the global elite: “I have been pained to see the way refugees and migrants have been stereotyped and scapegoated—and to see political figures stoke resentment in search of electoral gain.” (Trump’s 2016 campaign appealed to anti-migrant sentiment.) “Refugees, internally displaced persons and migrants are not the problem,” Guterres added, “the problem lies in conflict, persecution and hopeless poverty.”