Leaders of some of the world’s most influential – or controversial – countries skipped Donald Trump’s debut at the United Nations rather than face the prospect of being caught up in an embarrassing controversy by the unpredictable U.S. president.
The list of state leaders missing the international event is long and growing. Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are two of the highest profile absences. But there are many whose faces were noticeably absent during Trump’s aggressive speech Tuesday on confronting North Korea, terrorism and communism, including Germany’s Angela Merkel, Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto.
Diplomats say they’ve learned it can be risky to share the spotlight with Trump, who can turn even the most well-intentioned exchange into an international spectacle, such as his notorious call with the Australian prime minister about refugees or the dressing down of NATO leaders at the unveiling of a new headquarters.
“Even meetings that should be a good meeting can veer off into bizarre directions,” said a former U.S. official in contact with the diplomatic community.
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The spotlight at this year’s United Nations General Assembly meeting is already largely focused on Trump, who delivered a 40-minute speech on security, sovereignty and fighting terrorism. And many of the world’s leaders sent their underlings to fill the chairs.
Putin and Merkel are sending their foreign ministers. May chose to travel to Florence to deliver a “major address” on Brexit instead of visiting New York.
“When a U.S. president first appears on the world stage at UNGA, typically he’s besieged with requests to meet with everyone,” the former official said. “Everyone wants a photo. A 15-minute meeting. It’s not happening this time.”
Maduro gave up the opportunity to follow in his mentor and predecessor’s footsteps by using the United Nation’s platform to rail against Trump. In 2006, former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez notoriously called former U.S. President George W. Bush “the devil” who thinks he is “the owner of the world.”
The White House deflected any concerns, saying the high-profile absences won’t hurt the work being conducted.
NSC Advisor H.R. McMaster said the United Nations is not a substitute for the bilateral work Trump has been focused on. U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said each leader’s deputy was more than capable of representing that nation’s interests.
“I do think that it’s still going to be strong and have an impact because you've got two very strong foreign ministers from Russia and China that are going to be there,” Haley told reporters. “And the idea that we're going to be talking about Syria and North Korea, and Iran, and all of those other things, I think it will be serious discussions.”
Back in 2009, when former President Barack Obama first stood in the General Assembly hall, he was the fresh-faced leader who inspired hopes for a world that might put racism behind. His staff fielded dozens of requests from world leaders who sought to be seen with the young leader who weeks later would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
With Trump, however, foreign leaders have learned that you never can tell how a conversation, public or private, with Trump is going to go.
The call with Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull early in the Trump administration was supposed to be a good-natured exchange. But the now-notorious phone call turned into a bitter battle over refugees and comparisons to Trump’s relationship with Vladimir Putin.
Last May, Trump was expected to deliver an uplifting endorsement of NATO’s core missions at a ceremony opening the new NATO headquarters and instead scolded leaders on their financial commitment to the alliance.
And in August, a transcript was leaked of a phone call between Trump and Mexico’s president in which the two argued about the border wall, underscoring for diplomats how little they can trust that private conversations will remain private.
“Leaders of substance,” the former U.S. official said, “if they’re going to meet with Trump, want to do it where they can control more of the agenda and atmospherics.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated British Prime Minister Theresa May’s attendance. She is attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York.