Trump spoke frequently about “sovereignty” in his remarks, so frequently that it might be argued that it was the central theme of his speech. “We do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation,” he said. National sovereignty, of course, has been perhaps the foundational tenet of international affairs for centuries. But Trump’s words were code. They spoke to the fears of the Breitbart crowd that U.S. collaboration with other nations in a global organization means giving up its sovereignty to foreigners.
Trump also lashed out at “global bureaucracies” and international trade accords. While he said that the U.N., after almost three-quarters of a century, showed some promise, he complained the United States was spending too much on it (“We pay far more than anybody realizes. The United States bears an unfair cost burden,” he said). This attack on the U.N. comes in conjunction with his withdrawal from the Paris climate accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his goal of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, his threats to undo the U.S.-South Korea trade deal and the Iran nuclear deal, as well as his criticism of our NATO allies and alliances.
Overall, Trump’s speech to the United Nations reinforces his position as the most nationalist U.S. president of modern history.
Trump offered an ideology that he called “realistic” but at its heart was essentially selfish. All foreign policy is guided by national interests. That is as fundamental as the respect for sovereignty. But while Trump praised some U.N. programs, time and time again they seemed clearly grounded in a philosophy of “what’s in it for us” that seemed to set aside the values of community and common interests on which the U.N. was founded. This was perhaps best illustrated by the case he made against what he called “uncontrolled migration” and his arguments that the best place for refugees is, in his view, as far from the United States as possible.
Beyond pragmatism, the speech will likely be remembered as one in which the president of the United States sounded more like a mob boss than a statesman—think Robert DeNiro as Al Capone in “The Untouchables” minus the baseball bat. This was a tough guy flexing his muscles so that all in the audience could see how tough he was.
His harshest language was reserved for North Korea. Outlining the threat it poses, he then went on to say that if it did not “de-nuclearize,” “We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.”
These are clearly words never, ever to be engraved in marble. The president of the United States chose, in a forum dedicated to diplomacy, to threaten to wipe another nation — a much smaller one — off the face of the earth in language that was not so much hard-line rhetoric as it was schoolboy bullying complete with childish name-calling.
Trump also used language so harsh about the Iran nuclear deal that it seems highly unlikely that he will be able to avoid pulling out of it without appearing to be a complete hypocrite. While this has not stopped him in the past, he framed his harsh attacks on Iran in a way that suggested that the Iran-hawks on his team seemed to be getting the better of those with more respect for the international processes, sensibilities and interests that led to the Iran nuclear deal in the first place. (Attacking as vehemently as he did the most prominent recent effort to de-nuclearize a country by diplomatic means rather than via force, even if that effort was flawed, seems to make a peaceful solution to the North Korean crisis less rather than more likely.)
Trump also harshly went after Cuba and Venezuela, but his onslaughts against Pyongyang and Tehran were so tough as to feel more like predicates to war than anything like a collective solution of the type that the U.N. stands for. In the wake of his remarks, I was told by sources at the U.N. that many diplomats were shaken by the starkness of his words.
But why, if Trump was going to take such a strong stance for sovereignty, did he neglect to mention the most aggressive attack on U.S. sovereignty — specifically, our ability to conduct free and fair elections — that has taken place in recent years, or the attacker, Russia? On this, the big tough guy was strangely silent. Well, not so strangely, especially if you are following the Trump-Russia scandal.
In short, Trump gave a speech that may have shocked the world but could not have surprised a single American who has watched his narcissistic cave-man routine for the past two years. As a diplomatic maiden voyage, Trump’s first speech to the U.N. was not just a flop; his words could carry with them a globally destabilizing effect. As far as domestic politics go, it no doubt will get cheers from the president’s xenophobic base and result in deepening dismay from all the rest of us.