“Today, we face our own 1945 moment,” the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, said as he opened the UN’s 75th general assembly, to a thinly populated chamber of socially distanced diplomats.
Guterres meant the historical reference as a call to action inspired by the generation who had survived the second world war and sought to build a new world. A similarly concerted effort, he said, would be needed to defeat Covid and the pandemics that may follow, and the climate emergency.
But the veteran Portugese politician acknowledged that 1945 was also the starting point of the cold war, and he warned about a new standoff, with the rapidly escalating US-China rivalry taking the world in “a very dangerous direction”.
“Our world cannot afford a future where the two largest economies split the globe in a great fracture – each with its own trade and financial rules and internet and artificial intelligence capacities,” Guterres said.
The new cold war was apparent at the opening of this year’s UN general debate, with the leaders of major powers sniping at each other in their pre-recorded video messages. In fact, it felt very like the old cold war.
It was not the winners in the battle against coronavirus who had pride of place on the opening day of speeches. Otherwise New Zealand, South Korea and Germany would open the proceedings.
Instead it was the victors of the second world war, who established control of the new UN in the wreckage of 1945 and have not released their grip since, who set the tone.
Four of the five permanent members of the UN security council, who hammered their veto-wielding power into granite 75 years ago, spoke in the opening session.
Donald Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin presented their widely divergent views of the world within the first 90 minutes. Emmanuel Macron berated both the US and China for the diplomatic impasse at the UN, in a speech that, at 48 minutes, was more than three times longer than the official limit. Boris Johnson, representing the fifth member of the permanent five, had been given a speaking slot on Saturday, near the end of the general debate, a harsh measure of the UK’s ebbing influence.
It was a long way from the first UN general assembly, held in the Methodist Central Hall in London, the embodiment of hope of better times amid the rubble of the blitz. Three-quarters of a century later, the permanent home of the UN in New York was unusually quiet and its reservoir of hope was running low.
In other years, midtown Manhattan ground to a halt to allow presidents, prime ministers and their entourages to criss-cross its grid on their way to brief hotel room summits. This year the traffic flowed easily. The world’s leaders were present only in their pre-recorded messages played on two giant screens in the general assembly hall.
Guterres was one of only two speakers to deliver their speeches in person (the other being Volkan Bozkır, a Turkish diplomat serving as the president of the general assembly). Facing the hall, where each country was represented by just one or two diplomats, sitting well apart, he delivered a pugnacious call to action in desperate times.
“People are hurting. Our planet is burning,” the former prime minister said. “We must be guided by science and tethered to reality. Populism and nationalism have failed. Those approaches to contain the virus have often made things manifestly worse.”
There was no doubt who Guterres was talking about. The first two world leaders to speak were Jair Bolsonaro and Trump, neither of whom has been accused of being “tethered to reality” in the present crisis.
In their speeches, both claimed to have made astounding progress against both the coronavirus and the climate emergency, though both have repeatedly told their own people that neither is a serious problem. Both have overseen catastrophic responses to the pandemic (the US death toll was confirmed as passing 200,000 virtually as Trump’s video message was being played) and large areas of their countries have gone up in smoke.
Trump’s speech was a barnstorming seven minutes, less than half than the time he was allotted, and in a tone just short of yelling, and at about twice his normal speed.
The International Crisis Group’s chief UN analyst, Richard Gowan, suggested he looked like “a man who suddenly realised on starting his speech that he urgently needed a pee”.
An alternative explanation was that he was speaking fast so his speech could be repackaged as a campaign video – which it was within minutes by the Republican party.
Most of Trump’s seven minutes were dedicated to a ferocious attack on Beijing, and its responsibility for releasing the “China virus” on the world. Amid the litany of complaints aimed at China, however, Trump made no mention of the mass incarceration of the country’s Muslims and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.
The president’s bluster left space for Xi and Putin to act like the grown-up super powers in the room, with reassuringly turgid speeches urging peace and multilateralism.
Xi made news, declaring that China’s carbon dioxide emissions would peak by 2030 and the country would reach carbon neutrality by 2060. And he displayed munificence, donating $100m to UN funds.
In his video message, Putin offered free vaccinations to UN staff, claiming his country’s Covid vaccine was “reliable, safe and effective”. Coming from a former KGB officer widely believed to have approved the use of polonium-210 and Novichok nerve agent against his enemies, the offer of free injections had a sinister resonance.
It was a reminder that, despite the withdrawal of Trump’s America from global leadership on the UN stage, the understudies for the role at this point in history have very limited appeal of their own.