Much of what President Trump said in his much-anticipated first address to the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday was directly on point. He was right to demand that the U.N. do more to address violations of human rights, violations of national sovereignty and acts of terrorism. He was also on solid ground in much of the criticism he leveled against North Korea and Iran.
But Trump undermined the effectiveness of his message with the bombast, boastfulness (“Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been”) and illogic he displayed on the campaign trail. There were also gratuitous insults, including a simplistic denunciation of “socialism” likely to offend many of the countries he implored to “confront together those who threaten us with chaos, turmoil and terror.”
The U.N. was never going to be an ideal forum for Trump, with his “America First” nationalism, his eagerness to slash U.S. foreign aid and his disregard for broad global agreements. In a way, Trumpism is the polar opposite of the U.N.’s spirit of shared responsibility and its belief in multilateral solutions to the planet’s problems.
Trumpism is the polar opposite of the U.N.’s spirit of shared responsibility and its belief in multilateral solutions to the planet’s problems.
Still, we had hoped that the president might temper his tone, if nothing else. We hoped, for instance, that he would discipline his language when discussing North Korea and its frightening development of nuclear weapons. But at the U.N. he continued his guns-blazing rhetoric, saying the U.S. would “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” if it was forced to defend itself or its allies. It was a bizarrely bellicose message for an American president to send to an audience of world leaders.
It’s true that the U.S. long has warned of catastrophic consequences for the North if attacked South Korea or the U.S.; but Trump’s choice of words made him sound more reckless than the policy he was defending. It didn’t help that Trump insisted on referring to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” a juvenile insult recycled from one of his tweets.
Moving to Iran, Trump suggested that it was also a equally deserving of condemnation, a reminder of George W. Bush’s inclusion of Iran and North Korea in an “axis of evil” that also included Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.
Not only did Trump (rightly) criticize Iran’s support for Hezbollah and the government of Bashar Assad in Syria; he called the Islamic republic a “rogue state” that “masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy.”
It’s true that religious leaders exercise an inordinate influence over Iran’s electoral process and that dissidents are imprisoned. But there are competitive parliamentary and presidential elections in Iran and a degree of personal freedom that is unknown in North Korea. False equivalencies undermine Trump’s criticism of both nations.
Trump also repeated his campaign-trail denunciations of the international agreement under which Iran agreed to important limits on its nuclear program, calling it “an embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.” He teased the audience (and U.S. allies who are also signatories to the agreement) by saying: “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. Believe me.”
That cryptic promise will rekindle speculation that Trump will refuse next month to certify Iran’s compliance, opening the door for Congress to repudiate the deal and reimpose sanctions. That would be a doubly disastrous course of action. It would give Iran, which has been complying with the deal, an excuse to resume work on a nuclear weapon. It also would put North Korea on notice that if it struck a deal to limit its nuclear program, the U.S. couldn’t be trusted to keep its end of the bargain.
In his broadside against the autocratic government of Venezuelan president Nicolas Maduro, Trump claimed that “the problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” For Trump and his speechwriters, there may be no difference between “socialism” and Stalinist dictatorship. But in many countries, including some U.S. allies, “socialist” is a synonym for “social democrats” who favor a generous welfare state that is also a representative government.
As for reconciling “America First” with the U.N. mission, the president tried to square the circle in his speech by suggesting that the U.N.’s success “depends upon the independent strength of its members.” In Trump’s telling, the U.N. is a collection of self-interested sovereigns that shouldn’t be pressed by outsiders to alter their internal political arrangements. Yet Trump also insisted that “we do expect all nations ... to respect the interests of their own people.”
This is a contradiction that has haunted the administration’s foreign policy from the start. Trump’s needlessly offensive speech did nothing to resolve it.
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