At UNGA, as President Trump Goes it Alone, the World Moves On

At the start of last week’s annual gathering of world leaders at the United Nations, President Donald Trump emphasized America’s withdrawal from leadership on global humanitarian issues during his speech before the General Assembly (UNGA) – promoting isolationism over multilateralism. However, as evidenced throughout the plethora of events and meetings that take place during UNGA ‘high-level’ week, multilateralism is alive and well. Members of the global community – including governments, civil society, and the private sector – are moving forward to tackle the world’s most pressing humanitarian challenges, with or without U.S. government leadership.

As Refugees International noted with dismay, the President disparaged the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court; heralded the U.S. disengagement from the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly, and Regular Migration (GCM); announced a sharp reduction in funding for UN peacekeeping; and announced his continuing aversion to welcoming refugees and asylum seekers to the United States. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he stated.

However, where the United States is standing down, others are standing up, together.

On the global migration crisis, a ministerial-level event on the GCM offered a sharp contrast to President Trump’s approach. Government after government expressed support for the Compact, for the benefits and opportunities of safe and orderly migration, and for the need to address complex migration issues through multilateralism.

As the foreign minister of Brazil stated, “Let us not forget that migration is not simply a problem. Migration is also a source of mutual enrichment and a phenomenon which can bring nations together. Migration requires a great deal of international cooperation, and sovereignty is not weakened with cooperation.”

The GCM, which lays out the first international framework to address migration in a comprehensive manner, is set to be adopted at a summit in Marrakech in December, with the United States sitting on the sidelines.

During UNGA week, we also saw the private sector step forward to provide concrete support for refugees. The day before President Trump’s speech, 20 global companies (including a number of U.S.-based companies) announced commitments to help refugees in Jordan and around the world with jobs, training, and investments. For example, Hissho Sushi, a North Carolina-based sushi restaurant chain, pledged to help 1,250 refugees become franchise owners throughout the United States by 2023. GroFin, a private finance institution, intends to provide $5 million to small businesses in Jordan that are owned by refugees or that hire refugees. The numbers may be small compared to the need, but the impact on access to jobs is real – and so is the message on inclusion.     

On some of the world’s most acute humanitarian crises, the UN’s leadership chaired meetings with member states, international organizations, and civil society groups aimed at sustaining support for lifesaving assistance. One such meeting was on the crisis in South Sudan, where since 2013, a brutal civil war has forced millions from their homes and resulted in nearly 400,000 deaths. A recent peace agreement offers an important moment to reach more people in need and also support longer-term recovery and resilience efforts. At the meeting, donor governments reiterate their commitment to providing aid, while also bringing tough messages to the government of South Sudan about ensuring safe and unfettered access for humanitarian actors.  

Addressing the particularly devastating scourge of gender-based violence (GBV) was a significant focus during UNGA. During an event co-hosted by the European Union and UNICEF, Canada touted its upcoming leadership role of the “Call to Action on Protection from Gender-Based Violence in Emergencies.” This is at a time when the United States, once a leader of this multi-stakeholder initiative, has cut funding to UNFPA (the UN Population Fund), a key partner in preventing and responding to gender-based violence.

To be clear, the plethora of meetings and events that take place during UNGA high-level week, can leave much to be desired. There is no guarantee that positive rhetoric will lead to concrete action. Furthermore, in an effort to reach consensus, the teeth can be taken out of various initiatives and declarations. For example, while 140 countries, including the United States, endorsed a “Declaration of Shared Commitments on UN Peacekeeping Operations” at a summit on Tuesday, the Declaration fails to promote the protection of civilians as an operational priority. So the multilateral efforts at UNGA are certainly not perfect.

However, when the United States reduces funding (as it has done for UN peacekeeping) or disengages from negotiations altogether (as with the GCM and the Paris Climate Agreement), this erodes U.S. global leadership, minimizes leverage, and leaves missed opportunities for making multilateral processes more meaningful and effective. As we witnessed at UNGA this week, with or without the United States, the world will move on.