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Trump delivers defiant defense of his foreign policy approach to skeptical U.N. audience

President Trump focused on issues of sovereignty and patriotism in his address to world leaders Sept. 25 at the United Nations General Assembly in New York. (Video: Reuters)

UNITED NATIONS — Declaring that the United States will “never apologize for protecting its citizens,” President Trump delivered a defiant defense Tuesday of a transactional worldview that is increasingly at odds with consensus-driven international bodies such as the United Nations.

He used an address to the U.N. General Assembly to warn that his administration will reject attempts by other nations to impose constraints on the United States in areas including trade, immigration and security, while inviting other world leaders to do the same.

“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” Trump said in a 35-minute address delivered to a packed chamber. “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”

President Trump elicited laughter at the start of his address to world leaders Sept. 25 at the U.N. General Assembly in New York. (Video: Reuters)

Trump never uttered his campaign slogan of “America First,” preferring the loftier term “sovereignty” for the same nationalist and protectionist reordering of American engagement in world affairs.

He wasted little time in declaring that he has made progress on this agenda, but Trump’s approach to foreign affairs has led to tensions at the international body — a dynamic that was on display in the first moments of the speech as Trump ran through a highlight reel of U.S. economic markers that echoed lines from his campaign rallies.

He boasted that he had made more progress than “almost any other administration in the history of our country” — prompting audible laughs in the cavernous U.N. chamber. A startled-looking Trump appeared thrown off balance for a moment.

“I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay,” he said, and went on.

The United States was instrumental in the founding of the United Nations more than 70 years ago, hosts the world body and remains its largest single donor. But Trump has been a persistent critic of the institution, and his close advisers, including national security adviser John Bolton, view it with skepticism, warning that the United States need not pay as much or bend to collective decision-making.

Trump used his speech to issue a sharp warning to the leaders of Iran, Syria, Venezuela and China over what he described as their rogue behavior. He was especially pointed in criticizing Iran, a theme he continued in informal remarks to reporters later in the day.

“Not going to happen,” Trump said of any Iranian ambitions for influence and military control across the Middle East.

He cited his withdrawal of the United States from the U.N.-backed international nuclear deal with Tehran as a prime example of the new U.S. approach under his presidency. He also recited other retractions from the consensus view of most of the other U.N. member nations, including recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and refusing to sign an international compact on migration.

The United States plans to reimpose additional sanctions on Iran in November as the last step in pulling out of the nuclear deal, which Trump long complained treated the United States unfairly.

Trump used his maiden appearance at the United Nations last year to rail against North Korea, including insulting leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.” But he struck a far more optimistic tone this year, following up his historic one-on-one meeting with Kim in June with a second summit tentatively planned for later this year.

Trump publicly thanked Kim for his “courage and the steps he has taken.” He emphasized that Pyongyang has not tested a ballistic missile since the engagement process began early this year.

Asked later whether the same trajectory from tough talk and threats to warmer relations might be repeated with Iran, Trump said he was open to future talks on a different nuclear deal.

“I think that, at some point, they’re going want to negotiate. I have said no so far,” Trump said.

“It was me that said no, not them,” he added, a reference to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s remark Monday that he would not meet with Trump in New York this week.

“I think that at some point, we will have meaningful discussions and probably do a deal,” Trump said. “I don’t see how it works for them otherwise, because otherwise they’re going to be in the worst economic trouble of any country anywhere in the world.”

Trump had tweeted earlier Tuesday that he had no plans to see Rouhani now, adding that he is “sure he is an absolutely lovely man.”

When Rouhani took his own turn at the U.N. rostrum, he blasted expressions of “extreme nationalism and racism,” remarks that were clearly aimed at the U.S. president.

Trump was not in the chamber to hear Rouhani, instead helping to host an amiable lunch with other leaders where he observed that in his first appearance at the United Nations last year, “it was a little bit of a foreign territory to me, the United Nations. But now it’s like home.”

Referring to the bloody civil war in Syria during his address, Trump blamed the “corrupt dictatorship in Iran” for fueling the conflict through money and support for Bashar al-Assad’s government.

“They sow chaos, death and destruction,” Trump said. “The United States has launched a campaign of economic pressure to deny the regime the funds it needs to advance its bloody agenda.”

On Venezuela, Trump denounced the socialist government of President Nicolás Maduro, whose oppressive leadership has resulted in a collapse of the nation’s economy and a massive human rights crisis as hundreds of thousands of Venezuelans have fled the country.

Trump announced U.S. sanctions on members of Maduro’s inner circle. Maduro was hit with sanctions last year.

“Virtually everywhere socialism and communism has been tried, it has led to corruption and decay,” Trump said. He called on the world to “resist socialism and the misery it brings to everyone.”

A Washington Post-ABC poll in July, just after Trump was widely criticized for his performance during a summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, found that 47 percent of Americans thought Trump had weakened U.S. leadership in the world and that 30 percent thought he had made it stronger.

Time and again, Trump returned to the theme of sovereignty during his speech. He cast his immigration and border policies as national security matters and said no one, the United Nations included, will dictate how the United States evaluates those decisions.

“We will not be governed by an international body that is unaccountable to our own citizens,” Trump declared. He added that the only long-term solution to the migration crisis is to “help people build brighter futures in their own countries — make their countries great again.”