UNITED NATIONS – In a week of speeches that swirled from the sublime to the ridiculous or were simply just boring, the recent United Nations General Assembly debate reached some notable exceptions. Among the sonorous drone of 193 addresses, either restating the obvious or repeating by rote the contemporary global mantra of climate change, the Palestinians and endemic poverty, some chiefs of state reached rhetorical pinnacles.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s measured but firm address set the stage for speeches by other presidents, prime ministers and potentates.
I’ve selected three particularly poignant speeches that, beyond being oracles of the obvious, also presented delegates with a common sense but often overlooked perspective.
Let’s begin with Japan’s long-serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a key player on the global stage and a close friend of the United States. The storied free market disciple Adam Smith must have been smiling when Abe stated, “The Japanese people have eagerly hoped for their national leaders to serve as flag bearers for free trade … after the war Japan itself was a nation that enjoyed remarkable growth, based in the advantages of trade as the beneficiary of a free and open system.”
He added that the free trade system “enabled the countries of Asia, one after the other, to achieve takeoff and fostered the middle class in each of these countries.” That’s so very true.
“Japan has now taken on the mission of imparting to the word the benefits of trade,” he said.
For many years, “both Japan and the United States have led the free trade system forward internationally.” He cited Japan’s direct investment in America which “has created … employment for 856,000 people nationwide.” Most of these jobs are in the automotive sector. Currently 1.7 million Japanese cars are exported to the United States; significantly the number of Japanese cars manufactured within the U.S. by American workers is 3.7 million.
Abe stressed that “this is a win-win situation at its finest. I intend for Japan and the United States to continue this kind of relationship between us.”
Indian Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj imparted some wisdom on the continuing terrorist threat: “The demon of terrorism now stalks the world … in our case terrorism is bred not in some faraway land, but across our border to the west.”
Referring of course to Pakistan, Swaraj stated, “Our neighbor’s expertise is not restricted to spawning grounds for terrorism; it is also an expert in trying to mask malevolence with verbal duplicity.” Focusing on the Bin Laden networks and the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on America, she added, “Pakistan’s commitment to terrorism as an instrument of official policy has not abated one bit.”
Clearly from an American viewpoint, one hopes Pakistan’s new government will stop supporting militant Taliban factions in neighboring Afghanistan who often in turn target Western troops. Still, Pakistan’s consistent support for the Taliban, albeit unofficial, represents a weak link in U.S. security and stabilization operations in Afghanistan.
Polish President Andrzej Duda offered a more nuanced view of multilateralism: “Not everyone who claims to be a proponent of multilateralism thinks of it in terms of the equality of states.” He warned that “one can say there is a negative multilateralism, which boils down to the concert of powers, a division into spheres of influence.”
“Europe and Poland were often victims of this kind of multilateralism starting from the 18th century, throughout the 19th century, during the time of the Cold War,” Duda said. “Multilateralism and the rules-based global order are not just for the chosen ones. The same principles must apply to all and to the same extent.”
Referring to what he views as “positive multilateralism,” he cited “the multilateralism of equal states and free nations, not the multilateralism of usurpation and hierarchy.” He was making a thinly veiled reference to the European Union, of which Poland’s populist government is a member, facing the blunt power of Brussels that has seemingly undermined Polish sovereignty.
Duda advised that “states which have an advantage in terms of potential and power should not deprive others of their equal right to independence.” He called for “reform of the European Union as returning to its origins.” He added it’s important that multilateralism serves a certain system of values, instead of being just an element of a political technology and a game of interests.
Free trade, the continuing terrorist threat and the core issue of national sovereignty were wisely highlighted in the midst of usually stunning mediocrity.
John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of “Divided Dynamism: The Diplomacy of Separated Nations Germany, Korea, China.”