When you discount the rhetorical overkill, the most surprising thing about President Trump's address to the United Nations on Tuesday was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations. Pretty shocking stuff.
Because he’s Trump, the zingers got the headlines: He repeated his childish, snarky (but sort of funny) playground denunciation of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” And he offered a bombastic threat that if North Korea attacks the United States or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy” it.
Okay, got that: It’s a restatement of the existing U.S. policy of nuclear deterrence. Trump also thanked China and Russia for their diplomatic help and pushed them to do more. He said the Iran nuclear deal was “an embarrassment” and Iran’s regional actions were a “scourge,” but he didn’t say he would tear up the deal. He appealed to the Iranian people, without exactly calling for regime change. He checked all the hard-liner boxes, in other words, without making any new commitments.
It was a well-cooked pudding, the sort of speech Trump might have given at his inauguration back in January if he hadn't been so angry. Back then, he spoke like a wrecker (raging about "American carnage"). Now he's using the alliterative phrases that are speechwriters' earwigs, as in calling for "a renewal of will, a rediscovery of resolve and a rebirth of devotion." Stirring, pleasant to hear, otherwise incomprehensible.
Trump even had one of those JFK-style false-dichotomy “ask not . . . but what . . .” passages when he talked about the choice between lifting the world to a new height or letting it fall into a “valley of disrepair.”
The speech was reportedly written by Stephen Miller, a.k.a. Darth Vader to many in the mainstream media, but this seemed to be Miller 2.0, and perhaps the language left his now-deposed mentor Stephen K. Bannon gnashing his teeth: What happened to the insurgent populist Trump who talked a year ago as if he wanted to topple the global order? On Tuesday, Trump seemed instead to embrace an updated version of it.
Trump’s address offered a heavier dose of nationalism and self-interest: he wanted to root collective action in sovereignty and reciprocity, rather than a vaguer “globalism.” He spoke about righteousness defeating evil, a “great reawakening of nations” and other fuzzy Reaganisms. But at its core, this was a speech that any president since Harry S. Truman probably could have delivered. (Interestingly, Trump twice favorably mentioned Truman, the haberdasher from Kansas City whose stubborn common sense shaped the liberal order.)
Trump was something of an interventionist in his remarks. He wanted to bash not just North Korea and Iran but also other undemocratic rogue regimes, such as Cuba and Venezuela. He even spoke up for human rights, decrying the authoritarian nations on the U.N. Human Rights Council.
Trump even invoked the Marshall Plan, the very cornerstone of the liberal international order. He added a Trumpian touch, saying it had been built with “three beautiful pillars” — sovereignty, security and prosperity. He was right in that, as in saying that North Korea shouldn’t be the United States’ responsibility, because “that’s what the United Nations is for.” (Warning to base: Has POTUS been kidnapped by the black-helicopter crowd?)
Watching Trump give his biggest speech since the inauguration, I was modestly reassured to see him operating within the four walls of rationality, albeit reading from a teleprompter. “Rocket Man” aside, the tone seemed a bit like last week’s bipartisan legislative opening to Democrats Charles E. Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.
After a miserable nine months, Trump is sick of losing. He wants to “win,” and he evidently has realized that he can’t do so with a collection of right-wing outliers as his only allies. The U.N. speech, especially its repeated emphasis on the U.N. itself, struck me as the international version of his rebranding.
So what worries me about Trump’s speech? Oddly, it’s precisely that it was so conventional. If Trump is going to deal successfully with North Korea, he’ll truly have to think outside the box. If he wants a better, longer-lasting deal with Iran, he needs in some way to engage that nation and its people.
And most of all, Trump needs to bring America with him in making a reformed United Nations a place that actually solves problems. The Great Disrupter says he wants to revive the global community and make it work better. Okay, Mr. President, let’s see what you’ve got.
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