Leaders from around the world descended on New York for United Nations meetings, fancy parties, ringing speeches about helping the poor – and a big dose of hypocrisy.
And – finally! – this is the one area where President Donald Trump showed global leadership.
If there were an award for United Nations chutzpah, the competition would be tough, but the medal might go to Trump for warning that if necessary, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” There were gasps in the hall: A forum for peace was used to threaten to annihilate a nation of 25 million people.
There also was Trump’s praise for American humanitarian aid to Yemen. Patting oneself on the back is often oafish, but in this case it was also offensive. Yemen needs aid because the U.S. is helping Saudi Arabia starve and bomb Yemeni civilians, creating what the U.N. says is the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. In other words, we are helping to create the very disaster that we’re boasting about alleviating.
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It was also sad to see Trump repeatedly plug “sovereignty,” which tends to be the favored word of governments like Russia (even as it invades Ukraine and interferes in the U.S. election) and China (as it supports corrupt autocrats from Zimbabwe to Myanmar).
Speaking of Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi skipped the U.N. meeting, after being feted last year, because it’s awkward to be a Nobel Peace Prize winner who defends a brutal campaign of murder, rape and pillage. Many Muslim leaders in attendance, like Recep Tayyip Erdogan, did highlight the plight of the Rohingya suffering an ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. If only they were as interested in their own political prisoners!
Meanwhile, world leaders usually ignore places that don’t fit their narratives. Everybody pretty much shrugged at South Sudan and Burundi, both teetering on the edge of genocide; at Congo, where we’re headed for civil strife as the president attempts to cling to power; and at the “four famines”: in Nigeria, Somalia, Yemen and South Sudan. To Trump’s credit, he expressed concern Wednesday about South Sudan and Congo and said he would dispatch U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley to the region to see what can be done; let’s hope his administration provides desperately needed leadership.
In fairness, there are broader reasons for hope, including astonishing progress against global poverty – more than 100 million children’s lives saved since 1990. Every day, another 300,000 people worldwide get their first access to electricity, and 285,000 to clean water. Global poverty is a huge opportunity, for we now have a much better understanding of how to defeat it: resolve conflicts, invest in girls’ education, empower women, fight malnutrition, support family planning, and so on.
For the first time in human history, less than 10 percent of the world’s population is living in extreme poverty, and we probably could virtually eliminate it over the next 15 years if it were a top global priority. Trump rightly hailed PEPFAR, the AIDS program President George W. Bush devised, but he also has proposed sharp cuts in its funding.
The progress on stopping human trafficking is also inspiring. I moderated a U.N. session on the topic, and it was heartening to see an overflow crowd engaging in a historically obscure subject, even as a new report calculated that there are 40 million people who may be called modern slaves. Prime Minister Theresa May convened perhaps the largest meeting of foreign ministers ever on human trafficking.
We now have the tools to achieve enormous progress against these common enemies of humanity – poverty, disease, slavery – but it’s not clear we have the will. What’s striking about this moment is that we have perhaps the worst refugee crisis in 70 years, overlapping with the worst food crisis in 70 years, overlapping with risks of genocide in several countries – and anemic global leadership.
“There is a vacuum of leadership – moral and political – when it comes to the world’s trouble spots, from Syria to Yemen to Myanmar and beyond,” notes David Miliband, the president of the International Rescue Committee. Margot Wallstrom, Sweden’s foreign minister, agrees: “I think there’s a leadership vacuum.”
There are exceptions: Wallstrom, U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and more.
But many countries are divided at home, distracted by political combat and looking increasingly inward, and in any case, the U.S. remains the indispensable superpower, and it is AWOL. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has achieved a degree of irrelevance that no one thought possible, and Trump is slashing the number of refugees accepted, cutting funds for the U.N. Population Fund and proposing huge cuts for diplomacy, peacekeeping and foreign aid (fortunately, Congress is resisting).
The number that I always find most daunting is this: About one child in four on this planet is physically stunted from malnutrition. And while it is the physical stunting that we can measure, a side effect is a stunting of brain development, holding these children back, holding nations back, holding humanity back.
So it’s maddening to see world leaders posturing in the spotlight and patting themselves on the back while doing so little to tackle humanitarian crises that they themselves have helped create.
Contact Nicholas Kristof at Facebook.com/Kristof or Twitter.com/NickKristof.