NEW YORK — In his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Donald Trump painted a dark vision of a world where every nation stands alone and cooperation is transactional and motivated by self-interest rather than ...
NEW YORK — In his maiden speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, President Donald Trump painted a dark vision of a world where every nation stands alone and cooperation is transactional and motivated by self-interest rather than shared values.
Standing before the representatives of the 193 member states of the United Nations, Trump delivered a perfect distillation of his hyper-nationalist America First worldview adapted for the world stage.
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” Trump said to a round of muted applause.
The centerpiece of Trump’s speech was the idea that every nation is best served by embracing its own independence. “Strong sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny,” he said. He defended the US’s right to push back against the norms of international trade, lamented the costs of immigration on countries, and said that the US has no interest in dictating how other countries should conduct their own affairs.
Trump declared that the key question for the nations of the world today is: “Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures?”
The UN General Assembly is a place where countries come together to try to come up with collective solutions to global problems. Trump’s message was that for the most part, every country is on its own when trying to manage them.
Trump is unconcerned with global cooperation — unless it’s for US security objectives
This isn’t the kind of rhetoric you typically hear from the US in recent years. Last year, for example, President Barack Obama used his UN speech to press for global solutions to the refugee crisis and climate change. “Together, now, we have to open our hearts and do more to help refugees who are desperate for a home,” he said in a typical passage.
Trump by contrast, called for policies that will keep refugees close to the regions from which they hail instead of calling for nations around the world to open up their doors to more of them. And climate change simply didn’t come up.
Trump did make one resolute call for cooperation, and that was under the banner of reining in “rogue regimes.” The three that he singled out most aggressively were North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.
On North Korea, Trump elicited astonished gasps from the audience when he offered one of the bluntest threats he’s ever issues against the country. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said.
Trump called for the nations of the world to do more to isolate North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and force him to give up his nuclear weapons. “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he said, referring to Kim.
On Iran, Trump sounded familiar notes, describing the Iran nuclear deal as an “embarrassment” and called for the world to joining the US “in demanding that Iran's government end its pursuit of death and destruction.”
Trump slammed Iran for its role in the Syria war and backing of US adversaries throughout the Middle East, but he didn’t make it clear how exactly he expected the world to intervene.
Trump also had harsh words for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, who the US has imposed sanctions on in response to his power grabs in recent months. Trump declared that the heart of the issue was the government’s ideology: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented,” he said. He called for the world to isolate Maduro more aggressively unless it takes steps to become more democratic.
Trump’s tough talk wasn’t all that substantive
Foreign policy analysts say that Trump’s speech was more bluster than substance, but that it is likely to cement the views of many world leaders that Trump is unconcerned with engaging the global community outside of pursuing the US’s own narrow security interests.
“There was a lot of tough talk but Trump often pulled back from making real threats,” Richard Gowan, a UN expert at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told me.
“He talked about destroying North Korea, but then swiveled to thanking China and Russia for supporting UN sanctions. He talked a lot about Venezuela, but then simply said everyone should ‘address’ the problem. Even on Iran, there was more bluster than substance in the speech,” Gowan said.
Gideon Maltz, who was deputy chief of staff to former UN Ambassador Samantha Power, told me that he believes that Trump’s full-throated defense of sovereignty may win Trump some friends at the UN, but for all the wrong reasons. Powerful autocratic countries like China and Russia that have long disliked US finger wagging likely delighted in Trump’s talk of sovereignty.
“‘Sovereignty’ is the shield that many governments use at the UN to defend against accusations of abuse,” Maltz said. “When governments face criticism over imprisonment of dissidents, or persecution of minorities, or even sexual abuse by their peacekeepers on UN missions, they routinely cite "sovereignty" as the overriding concern, and justification.”
“I think a lot of governments will walk away from that speech feeling that they have license to do as they will within their own borders,” Maltz added.
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