President Trump took a domestic agenda that has emphasized nationalism and sovereignty and in his first address to the United Nations on Tuesday made it the foundation of his foreign policy.
The speech before the global body was notable for its tone, which largely sidestepped the statesmanlike language of his other foreign policy addresses. In his attacks on the United States’ enemies — especially North Korea and Iran — Trump was bellicose and direct. In those moments, he sounded a lot like his Twitter feed.
Trump referred to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and accused him of being on a “suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” The president promised to “totally destroy” North Korea if it attacked the United States or its allies.
He hinted that he would soon pull the United States out of the international nuclear deal with Tehran, a move that would unnerve U.S. allies who are also parties to it.
“That deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you have heard the last of it,” he said. “Believe me.”
In previewing the speech for reporters, one senior White House aide described it as “a deeply philosophical address” that would explain “how America fits into the world, how it operates, what its values are.”
These have been subjects of often intense debate in a White House split between foreign policy traditionalists and Trump’s senior political advisers who have helped shape his “America first” agenda. Trump’s initial instincts often have been to upend U.S. foreign policy — or at least question the core principles that have guided it — before pivoting back to a more traditional stance.
Trump’s U.N. speech struggled with these conflicting impulses to the point of incoherence. In paying homage to American generosity on the world stage, Trump cited several U.S.-funded global health programs that the budget his administration released May 7 calls for significantly cutting.
He praised the Marshall Plan, which rebuilt Europe after World War II, even as he has repeatedly vowed that the United States’ days of nation-building are finished.
In some moments, Trump suggested that his commitment to sovereignty — a word that he repeated 21 times in the 40-minute speech — would lead to a less interventionist foreign policy.
“Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures and different dreams not just coexist but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect,” he said. He vowed to follow a policy of “principled realism” that would be guided solely by the United States’ interests.
In other instances, Trump outlined a far more expansive role for the United States. The president was selective in his view of bad actors — North Korea, Iran, Cuba, Syria and Venezuela — whose sovereignty did not merit respect. He made little mention of China or Russia, congratulating both on their recent U.N. vote for more sanctions on North Korea and offering only a brief mention of Moscow’s violations of Ukraine’s sovereign territory.
He cast Iran as a “murderous regime” whose destabilizing activities in the world must be stopped. “The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy,” he said.
Trump’s message seemed most muddled when he extended to Venezuela his list of enemies who had forfeited some aspects of their sovereignty. In this instance, Trump said that the United States’ respect for sovereignty is also “a call to action.”
In an unintentional echo of President George W. Bush’s activist freedom agenda, he said the United States should help Venezuela’s people “regain their freedom, recover their country and restore their democracy.”
Trump attributed Venezuela's near-collapse to the imposition of a "socialist dictatorship" rather than the authoritarianism and corruption most experts blame. He vowed the United States would "take further action" if the Venezuelan government "persists on its path."
Trump cast his presidency as an avatar of international renewal — “a great reawakening of nations” — built around his unique vision of global leadership and sovereignty. He described the world as weak and divided but suggested that a renewed patriotic spirit, national self-interest and cooperation among sovereign nations in pursuit of shared goals could cure most international ills.
“The true question for the United Nations today and for people all over the world . . . is a basic one,” Trump said. “Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and take ownership of their future?”
As he has repeatedly at home, Trump used the principle of sovereignty to mount an attack on “mammoth multinational trade deals” that he said had empowered faceless global bureaucracies over nation-states. At home, he said, the deals sent factory jobs overseas and hollowed out the middle class.
“Our great middle class, once the bedrock of American prosperity, was forgotten and left behind. But they are forgotten no more, and they will never be forgotten again,” Trump said.
It was unclear, though, how Trump’s emphasis on sovereignty would lead to the “great reawakening” and global comity that he was promising.
There is general agreement on the threat posed by North Korea, but China and Russia have a somewhat different idea on where their national sovereign interests lie in determining how to confront Pyongyang. On Iran, while the Sunni Muslim world and Israel largely share the U.S. view that the nuclear agreement is detrimental, most European allies differ.
Global issues that occupied Trump’s predecessors went unmentioned or were noted only in passing. President Barack Obama used his last speech before the United Nations to warn of the severe strains on the international system that the United States built in the wake of World War II.
By contrast, Trump complained about "unaccountable international tribunals and powerful global bureaucracies" that sapped the sovereignty of nations. He did not discuss climate change, nonproliferation, human rights or the Middle East peace process that had been a staple of previous presidents' speeches. Nor did he acknowledge the suffering in Burma, also known as Myanmar, where U.N.-
described "ethnic cleansing" has driven nearly a half-million people from the country in recent weeks.
White House officials described the speech as part of a trilogy that began in May in Saudi Arabia, where Trump first described a foreign policy of “principled realism,” and continued during his July remarks in Poland. His U.N. address echoed those earlier speeches’ emphasis on “real-world outcomes” over “inflexible ideology.”
But the U.N. speech cast the United States and Trump in a far bigger role on the global stage. In looking after U.S. interests and defending the principles of sovereignty and patriotism, Trump said he was hoping to spark a “rebirth of devotion” across the world.
At the United Nations, Trump was an “America first” president with grand and global ambitions.