President Trump warned the United Nations in a speech Tuesday that the world faces “great peril” from gathering threats posed by rogue regimes with powerful weapons and terrorists with expanding reach across the globe, issuing a call to fellow leaders to join the United States in the fight to defeat them.
“We meet at a time of immense promise and great peril,” Trump said in his maiden address to more than 150 international delegations at the annual U.N. General Assembly. “It is up to us whether we will lift the world to new heights or let it fall into a valley of disrepair.”
Unfortunately, a great deal of what he said seemed virtually designed to impair cooperation with America’s objectives.
First, the utter incoherence at the heart of this administration’s foreign policy was summed up in his call for nationalism. “I will always put America first, just like you as the leaders of your countries—and should as the leaders of your countries — put your countries first.” Selling selfishness at a time the United States is looking for allies to make sacrifices is comical. As my colleague Dan Drezner put it, “I am pretty sure that no other country in the world will think of ‘America First’ as the rational basis for cooperation. In order for cooperation to thrive at the United Nations and elsewhere, there has to be mutual interest.”
When Trump recalls the creation of the United Nation he tends to bypass its commitment to human rights and democracy. In his cut-and-paste version of history he declared that “it is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion or attempt to oppose [sic] and impose our way of life on others. Instead we helped build institutions like this one to defend the sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.”
Notice that the U.N. Charter describes its purpose: “To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace.” Trump never seems to realize that peace and security cannot be achieved without respect for human rights; dictatorships do not make for good neighbors. (“To develop friendly relations among nations based on respect for the principle of equal rights and self-determination of peoples, and to take other appropriate measures to strengthen universal peace.”)
Second, the notion that the United Nations or our international dealings should be solely about sovereignty is false and undermines our own international efforts. “America first” is a formula for domestic despotism around the world. If this is all about nationalism, on what basis does he call out Venezuela’s regime or have standing to complain about Iran’s dictatorial rulers? Dictatorial regimes will likely cite his paean to national sovereignty above all else and thereby dismiss his appeals to internal reforms. (“My administration recently announced that we will not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms. We have also imposed tough calibrated sanctions on the socialist Maduro regime in Venezuela, which has brought a once thriving nation to the brink of total collapse. The socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country.”) The administration seems utterly at a loss how to maintain the America first talk with the obvious need for us to support democracies and human rights.
Third, if Trump really did care about national sovereignty, shouldn’t we be doing or at least saying something about Russia’s invasion and occupation of part of Ukraine and its violation of U.S. sovereignty in meddling in our 2016 election? Trying to square his deference to Russian President Vladimir Putin with his vow to put “America first” is impossible.
Fourth, his language is so cringe-worthy as to lower the status and prestige of the United States on the international stage. He quite simply sounds like a child when he says, “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself.” He is incapable of leaving lingo for low-information voters behind, even when it risks creating doubts about his own maturity and stability. Vowing to “utterly destroy” North Korea if it does not give up its weapons is a reality TV star’s image of how powerful leaders talk. In practice, it comes across as cartoonish.
Fifth, saying the Iran deal is an “embarrassment” was unfortunate, unless he is determined to withdraw from the JCPOA and is certain our allies will follow suit. Otherwise he’s effectively drawing a red line that if not followed through upon makes him look weak and feckless.
Sixth, he is positively unintelligible on refugees. On one hand he complains that it is “deeply unfair” to have “uncontrolled” migration. As he seeks to reduce the U.S. allotment of refugees, he praised Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon for taking refugees. (But if they put their own countries first why should they?) Oddly, he did not thank Germany, which he has criticized for taking in refugees.
Seventh, his rhetoric is utterly at odds with his budget priorities. He said, “We have invested in better health and opportunity all over the world through programs like PEPFAR, which funds AIDS relief, the President’s Malaria Initiative, the Global Health Security Agenda, the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and the Women Entrepreneur’s Finance Initiative, part of our commitment to empowering women all across the globe.” That should come as a surprise to those who read his budget zeroing out numerous foreign aid programs.
We wish we could say new advisers would make the president’s rhetoric better. For better, more inspiration and coherent rhetoric we will need a new president.