UN Postcard: Two leaders, two world views - can ever the twain meet?

US President Donald Trump and UN secretary general Antonio Guterres both addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time since taking office 21 days apart. And they could not be more different

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres (L) watches as U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a session on reforming the United Nations at U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
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The main chamber of the United Nations building yesterday witnessed two world leaders presenting contrasting world views. One, the secretary general of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, called for "mediation" and striving for peace to solve challenges including terrorism. Another, US president Donald Trump, called for firm action against rogue countries and "loser terrorists".

The 72nd session of the United Nations General Assembly kicked off its General Debate on Tuesday with speeches from the secretary general and American president. For both, it was the first time they would be addressing the UNGA since assuming office 21 days apart at the start of this year. With a  General Assembly hall packed with the leaders of 193 countries, Mr Guterres and Mr Trump each had a chance to frame their world view and approach to governance and international affairs.

Mr Guterres’ speech was peppered with calls to world leaders to "advance the dignity of all," noting that  "our world is in trouble; people are hurting and angry." He called for mediation, finding common ground and ways to bridge divides around the world.

Mr Trump, who followed moments after Mr Guterres, emphasised "America first" and the need to protect "sovereignty" above all else. Mr Guterres spoke at length about climate change and urged implementation of the Paris Climate Accord. President Trump did not even mention it in his speech, and publicly continues to be committed to withdrawing his country from the international agreement.


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On refugees, Mr Guterres called for countries to do more to take in the dispossessed. Migrants and refugees could provide opportunities for growth, he said.  ‘I do not perceive (them) as a threat, even if some do."  In his speech, Mr Trump said his country would be providing assistance for refugees "to stay in their home region," in a clear confirmation of his intention to reduce the number of refugees accepted in the United States.

While Mr Guterres champions regulated human mobility, multilateralism and globalisation, Mr Trump announced that he holds true to his "America First" presidential campaign slogan  and urged the leaders of other countries to put their countries first too.

Their approaches can be traced back to their own experiences. While Mr Guterres has been in public service for decades, including serving as prime minister of Portugal from 1995 to 2002, the presidency is Trump’s first foray into the public sector. While Mr Guterres has learnt to reach deals based on consensus building, Mr Trump rose to success through tough bargaining and raising the stakes.

And yet, the two could becoming unlikely allies. Over just two days, they have met more than four times, including in a bilateral meeting. They have both announced their intention to reform the UN, they have co-hosted a meeting on the subject and have confirmed they are working together on it. However, with China and Russia refusing to sign up to the reform process, both leaders need each other to drive it forward.  An Arab diplomat attending the UNGA meetings said, "They need each other to make their agendas succeed."

So they may choose to agree to disagree on certain points and collaborate where they can, like on North Korea, and drive their own agendas where they can’t.