SEPT. 21, 2017 — President Donald Trump made an impression in his Sept. 19 speech to the U.N. General Assembly. These speeches by heads of government and state, given the forum and attendance of world leaders and international figures, can be considered a statement of a nation’s foreign policy, much more so than campaign speeches, media interviews and tweets.
There was some curiosity, among foreign leaders and among Americans, about what Trump would say. He appears to have been more or less on script as opposed to riffing, as he often does, but yet to have provided the world some signals.
He continues to have a problem playing it straight. The most egregious of his inflammatory rhetoric was his reference to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man.” On the subject of North Korea’s nuclear program and threats, Trump asserted America’s ability and willingness to “totally destroy” the country. Given that nearly everyone agrees that talks are the only way to deal with the North Korea problem, talks that would include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea as well as the United States and North Korea, it would have improved prospects for eventual success in such talks for Trump to have dealt with the subject seriously, instead of with a throwaway line. Total destruction of North Korea would also certainly mean total destruction of Seoul, the capital of South Korea. The Seoul metropolitan area has 26 million people.
The other international policy minefield that Trump wandered into was the 2015 deal under which Iran gave up its nuclear program for a time in return for relief from economic and financial sanctions. Trump criticized the Iran deal again, hinting that America might abandon it. What he seems not to understand is that on our side China, France, Germany, Russia and the United Kingdom signed it, as well as the United States and Iran, a fact that European Union Foreign Secretary Federica Mogherini reminded him of after his speech. Trump’s withdrawing the United States from the Iran accord would be, in effect, to take the United States off the field and send it to the locker room on a key international issue.
Trump also took shots at the Afghanistan Taliban, with whom negotiations are almost certain to be necessary; at Cuba; and at Venezuela, threatening that America is “prepared to take further action” if the regime there does not clean up its act.
The president’s “putting America first” affirmation was predictable. To the ears of many, it came across as unnecessary flag-waving, meat for an American audience rather than appropriate to the U.N. gathering. Trump yoked his campaign slogan to the idea of “sovereignty.” Here, Trump charted a world of nations acting in healthy self-interest but working together as needed: “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.”
His ultimate message for the United Nations was one of tough love. The Republican establishment, perhaps now accustomed to the president’s rhetoric, found much to embrace. Mitt Romney, once a fierce critic of Trump, tweeted: “President Trump gave a strong and needed challenge to U.N. members to live up to its charter and to confront global challenges.”
Trump’s speech will be remembered for its blunt imagery and bellicose moments but is also being recognized for reinforcing many conventional ideals. “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few,” he said, “then evil will triumph.” That’s not a cheery thought, but it’s a version of what underpins the Western alliance.