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At UN General Assembly, little unity as Trump blasts China, WHO over pandemic

The United Nations General Assembly is underway -- but it looks very different this year. For the first time in the body’s history, the meeting is being held virtually due to the pandemic. Meanwhile, unity among member nations appears to be in short supply. President Trump used the summit to blast China and the World Health Organization over their coronavirus handling. Nick Schifrin reports.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    The United Nations General Assembly is under way, and with so much else in our world now, it is a changed event this year.

    The normal buzz around the East Side of New York City and crush of delegations gave way to a virtual meeting this year.

    And, as Nick Schifrin tells us, in this 75th year of the U.N., unity is in short supply.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the largest diplomatic stage in the world was largely empty. And calls for multilateralism were muted by bilateral tensions.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world, China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    President Trump called COVID-19, which first emerged in Wuhan, the China virus. And he accused the U.N.'s World Health Organization, which the U.S. is leaving, of aiding and abetting.

  • President Donald Trump:

    The Chinese government and the World Health Organization, which is virtually controlled by China, falsely declared that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission. The United Nations must hold China accountable for their actions.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Each country was allowed one representative, and China's U.N. Ambassador Zhang Jun responded.

  • Zhang Jun (through translator):

    China resolutely rejects the baseless accusation against China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a prerecorded speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping obliquely criticized President Trump with a reference from literature, the daydreaming knight Don Quixote, who attacks imaginary enemies.

  • Xi Jinping (through translator):

    Burying one's head in the sand, like an ostrich, in the face of economic globalization, or trying to fight it with Don Quixote's lance, goes against the trend of history.

    Let us be clear. The world will never return to isolation, and no one can sever the ties between countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That summoning of solidarity comes as the world confronts nearly one million COVID deaths, and the U.S. crossed 200,000 today.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    We must be united. We have seen, when countries go in their own direction, the virus goes in every direction.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Secretary-General Antonio Guterres called for multilateralism, and warned the U.S. and China their confrontation could become conflict.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    We are moving 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.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. and China also clashed over climate. China is the world's largest polluter, but today pledged to become carbon-neutral by 2060.

    Criticism of President Trump came from adversaries, including Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, who used the death of George Floyd to accuse the U.S. of failed dominance.

  • Hassan Rouhani(through translator):

    We instantly recognize the feet kneeling on the neck as the feet of arrogance on the neck of independent nations.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.S. recently declared it reimposed U.N. sanctions on Iranian enrichment and weapon sales, including for missile parts. But all the other members of the Security Council rejected the U.S. authority to snap back sanctions, since the Trump administration left the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

  • Hassan Rouhani (through translator):

    This is a victory not just for Iran, but for the global community, that an aspirant of hegemony is humiliated in such self-created isolation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    French President Emmanuel Macron reiterated that Europe will not work with the U.S. on snapback.

  • Emmanuel Macron (through translator):

    This would undermine the unity of the Security Council and the integrity of its decisions, and would run the risk of further aggravating tensions in the region.

  • Narrator:

    San Francisco, California, a momentous conference begins.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Seventy-five years ago, the United Nations was born from the horror of World War II, and another U.S. president gave a remote address.

  • Harry Truman:

    If we do not want to die together in war, we must learn to live together in peace.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Today, the Trump administration argues, the U.N. resists reform, lacks transparency, and is vulnerable to autocrats. And President Trump today reiterated his world view.

  • President Donald Trump:

    As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first. That's OK. That's what you should be doing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The U.N. has always reflected its membership, and, today, countries are increasingly nationalist.

    Guterres warned that wouldn't work for COVID vaccines.

  • Antonio Guterres:

    Now some countries are reportedly making side deals exclusively for their own populations. Such vaccinationalism is not only unfair. It is self-defeating. None of us is safe until all of us are safe.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Multiple countries are working on dozens of vaccines, some in collaboration, some alone. Scientists fear Russia has rushed its vaccine, but, today, President Vladimir Putin offered it to the world.

  • Vladimir Putin (through translator):

    We are ready to share our experience and coordinate with all states and international entities, including in supplying the Russian vaccine, which is reliable, safe, and effective, to other countries.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Yesterday, every country agreed there was no other global organization with as much legitimacy, impact, and power to convene.

    But if the U.N. was designed to address global issues, this year, it couldn't even meet in person, and Guterres admitted that, in the world today, there's a surplus of problems and a deficit of solutions.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Nick Schifrin.

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