President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.
— Bud Norman