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Present at the Destruction

As world leaders gathered in New York this week for the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly, it was clear to most that the post-war multilateral system is now an artifact of a bygone era. The new world order that is currently emerging will be defined less by shared principles, and more by the whims of individual leaders and governments.

NEW YORK – At the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly this month, there was a widespread sense of foreboding among world leaders. The anxiety went beyond standard concerns about what US President Donald Trump would say, do, or tweet. Even before the summit began, Europeans, Canadians, Mexicans, South Koreans, and Japanese had been consulting in earnest about the need for a new alliance to save the multilateral system.

In the late 1960s, former US Secretary of State Dean Acheson looked back at the immediate post-war era and felt as though he had been “present at the creation” of a new world based on shared rules and multilateral institutions. But at the UNGA this year, many attendees felt as though they were present at the destruction of that world.

There are a number of reasons for this. But many of them are linked to Trump, whose attacks on the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, NAFTA, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the UN Human Rights Council have made it clear that he regards the international system as an unnecessary constraint on his administration.

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