Donald Trump made his UN debut last week with a speech that it is fair to say will be remembered for a long time. To say that people didn’t know what to expect may perhaps not be completely accurate. Many surely expected the usual bluster and bombast, leavened with a dose of the usual Trumpian bon mots and hyperbole. As it turned out, there was more substance to the speech than many expected, whether they agreed with that substance or not. There was also the small matter of threatening to nuke North Korea back to the Stone Age.
Trump opened with mention of the hurricanes that had battered Texas and Florida, thanking those leaders who had aided America or offered to do so. This was the usual diplomatic play-nice language to lay the ground for the rest of the speech. This was followed by a celebration of the successes of the American people and economy since Trump’s election, with mention of the stock market performance, employment growth, companies moving back and another massive increase in military spending to the tune of $700 billion. At least in this regard, Trump is a perfectly conventional US president, as apparently the way to win wars is to buy one’s way to victory.
Trump also covered the positive steps forward in science, technology and medicine that are undoubtedly revolutionising everything about our lives around the world today, whether for good or ill it is hard to know. He then moved onto the obstacles in the way of this Whiggish path of history, describing the threats to the world that include terrorism, extremism and rogue regimes; authoritarian powers getting too uppity for their own good; international crime networks; drug, weapons and people trafficking; mass migration and new technology in the hands of anyone with the know-how and the wherewithal to use it for their own nefarious ends.
These obstacles could prevent the world from moving on to the sunlit-uplands that were possible, and Trump described how “We have it in our power, should we so choose, to lift millions from poverty, to help our citizens realize their dreams, and to ensure that new generations of children are raised free from violence, hatred, and fear.” He then paid tribute to the noble founding ideal of the UN as an institution grounded in the ashes of the Second World War. So far, so establishment. However, things then became interesting.
While it is true that one could discern echoes of George W. Bush’s “Axis of Evil” speech in Trump’s speech, especially given his identification of Venezuela, Cuba, Iran and North Korea as threats that the world must face, this was no utopian neoconservative paean to the inherent longings for freedom that beat in every breast of men, women and children shackled by the forces of authoritarian rule in the world. Indeed, despite the similar rhetoric of the “righteous many” and “wicked few”, this speech arguably displayed what has been dubbed Trump’s “conservative internationalism” as laid out by Henry R. Nau in National Review.
By repeating President Truman’s message to Congress concerning the Marshall Plan and the UN, Trump was reinforcing the idea that isolationism is not the answer to the world’s problems, as that leaves issues that cannot be solved by any one nation on its own unresolved. However, neither should nations be side-lined or subsumed by massive, amorphous internationalist bureaucracies that leave the voices of the people in those sovereign nations mute before the Babel-like power of international institutions. In echoing Truman, Trump was emphasising that cooperation among sovereign nations was the right and proper way to move forward, as this was the only way to balance the needs of our world with the citizens of those nations and countries within that world. As he said, “Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world.”
His reiteration of his core “America First” campaign promise should not have been a surprise then, both in terms of his own and his team’s views of foreign relations, and also in the context of his supporters back home. This more realistic approach to foreign and diplomatic relations was further demonstrated by his next words:
“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for cooperation and success. 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.
Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny. And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.
In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.”
This is a complete repudiation of the universal view of the world put forward most assertively by Bush, but also by Barak Obama. No longer would America seek to shove its values down the throats of other countries. This may be seen as a sign that Trump is uncaring for those living in more authoritarian regimes due to a natural affinity he holds for the leaders of those regimes, and maybe he is and does. But lest liberals themselves forget, there has long been a debate within the liberal tradition over whether liberalism, and liberal democracy, are really truly universal institutions and values, or whether they developed in a certain place, at a certain time in history due to a confluence of certain circumstances that allowed for their flourishing. It would therefore be arrogance to assume that these supposedly putatively held ideas obtain in every corner of the world. If nothing else, the last 16 years have arguably shown the liberal universalist assumption to be false.
This is in no way an excuse for those authoritarian regimes still present on the international stage, who undoubtedly immiserate millions of people. However, while a noble ideal, building a foreign policy on this liberal idealism has arguably been a disaster for both those in the countries liberated by America and America itself, and it is important to realise that abandoning the messianic aims of Bush’s time in office in regards to spreading liberal democracy around the world does not mean tacit support for every despot on the planet. If that were the case, then taken to its extreme, the only moral option would be for a global hegemonic empire that installed liberal democracy worldwide. Again, the last 16 years have shown what happens when this path is chosen.
These years are one reason among many why Trump was elected. He re-committed himself to his supporters by again emphasising their sovereignty as citizens of the United States, a sovereign nation. As such, when considering foreign affairs, Trump “will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.” He withdrew America from its role as the world’s policeman, the one whose role it is to engage in endless wars to pursue its idealised view of the world. As Trump stated, the American people, and many of his supporters, have borne the brunt of this role in the sons and daughters killed on far-flung fields across the world. This nod to the sacrifice of his core support base was another nod to the domestic situation in America today.
Another nail in the coffin of the ideological Bush years came with Trump’s statement that:
“We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.
That realism forces us to confront a question facing every leader and nation in this room. It is a question we cannot escape or avoid. We will slide down the path of complacency, numb to the challenges, threats, and even wars that we face. Or do we have enough strength and pride to confront those dangers today, so that our citizens can enjoy peace and prosperity tomorrow?
If we desire to lift up our citizens, if we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfill our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent.”
Trump then progressed to the need for international institutions to be accountable to these sovereign nations:
“We also thank the Secretary General for recognizing that the United Nations must reform if it is to be an effective partner in confronting threats to sovereignty, security, and prosperity. Too often the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process.”
Trump also took the opportunity to criticise those who exploit the UN for their own ends:
“In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble aims have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them. For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
After spending a few more sentences on how the UN must reform and be made more accountable so that it could more easily attain its lofty ambition of preventing or mitigating conflict and disaster throughout the world, a situation which Trump described in dire terms, he then moved onto how America was invested in keeping the Western hemisphere safe. This explained his harsh stance towards Cuba and Venezuela. His point about Venezuela’s death spiral due to socialism was particularly well put:
“The socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro has inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country. This corrupt regime destroyed a prosperous nation by imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and misery everywhere it has been tried. To make matters worse, Maduro has defied his own people, stealing power from their elected representatives to preserve his disastrous rule.”
“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.”
Following his criticism of a failed economic ideology, Trump fell back on another key theme of his campaign, that of systems of trade. He criticised what he called “mammoth multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals, and powerful global bureaucracies were the best way to promote their success.” Again, as with foreign policy, Trump emphasised the primacy of each nations’ people and those they elect:
“While America will pursue cooperation and commerce with other nations, we are renewing our commitment to the first duty of every government: the duty of our citizens. This bond is the source of America’s strength and that of every responsible nation represented here today. If this organization is to have any hope of successfully confronting the challenges before us, it will depend, as President Truman said some 70 years ago, on the “independent strength of its members.” If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together, there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations — nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies; nations that seek allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer; and most important of all, nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries, their fellow citizens, and for all that is best in the human spirit.”
Again, Trump made the point that the United Nations is made up of sovereign nations, and that these sovereign nations are made up of people, of citizens, who are loyal to their fellow countrymen and not some far-off bureaucracy:
“In remembering the great victory that led to this body’s founding, we must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved.
Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.
Today, if we do not invest ourselves, our hearts, and our minds in our nations, if we will not build strong families, safe communities, and healthy societies for ourselves, no one can do it for us.
We cannot wait for someone else, for faraway countries or far-off bureaucrats — we can’t do it. We must solve our problems, to build our prosperity, to secure our futures, or we will be vulnerable to decay, domination, and defeat.
The true question for the United Nations today, for people all over the world who hope for better lives for themselves and their children, is a basic one: Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?”
To finish, and to really hammer home the primacy of the nation-state as the base building block of the United Nations, Trump closed by saying:
“Now we are calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.
History is asking us whether we are up to the task. Our answer will be a renewal of will, a rediscovery of resolve, and a rebirth of devotion. We need to defeat the enemies of humanity and unlock the potential of life itself.
Our hope is a word and world of proud, independent nations that embrace their duties, seek friendship, respect others, and make common cause in the greatest shared interest of all: a future of dignity and peace for the people of this wonderful Earth.
This is the true vision of the United Nations, the ancient wish of every people, and the deepest yearning that lives inside every sacred soul.”
This speech had something that would rub everyone up the wrong way. There were those like the Guardian who wailed about how dark it was, how nativist and fearful it was etc etc. Again, the authors of such pieces seem to believe that we live in a world that longs to accord with their ideals; it doesn’t. Trump is not celebrating that, he is recognising that. Meanwhile, the speech also annoyed some of Trump’s more fringe sympathisers, who claimed that it was a capitulation to internationalism and endless war, focusing on the parts where he talked about defeating groups like ISIS and at least trying to deal with the situation in Afghanistan and Syria based on “security interests [that] will dictate the length and scope of military operations, not arbitrary benchmarks and timetables set up by politicians.”
In other words, both sides had found bits they didn’t like, held those up as indicative of the whole and obfuscated those parts which they might have gone some way in agreeing with.
The most controversial part of the speech, however, was Trump’s verbal bombardment of Kim Jong-Un and the North Korean regime. He rightly castigated the regime for its brutalisation of its own population in what has amounted to a state-sized concentration camp. Trump then delivered the words that drew gasps of shock from the assembled heads of state:
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
To many, this seems crazy, provocative and downright dangerous. According to Scott Adams’s explanation of Trump’s method of persuasion, this is all part of Trump’s genius at persuasion in action. By emphasising that “Rocket Man” is on a suicide regime (a personal touch advised against by Trump’s aides), Adams would probably argue that Trump is banking on the belief of the rationality of Kim Jong-Un and his regime, and the knowledge they have that if they were to make moves towards striking anything connected to America then they would see everything destroyed. This potential for walking the threat threshold back based on Kim Jong-Un’s own self-interest is arguably demonstrated by the emphasis placed on the USA’s strength and patience.
However, while Adams’s explanations were undoubtedly illuminating for the election, they fall short here, and with the news of Iran’s test firing of a ballistic missile capable of reaching anywhere in the Middle East, Trump’s persuasive skills now seem to be edging these leaders towards escalation rather than a less catastrophic outcome. It’s been said before, but bears repeating; what worked on the campaign trail is not always suited to the world stage and we are seeing that here.
While Trump’s speech displayed a welcome return to a more realistic approach to foreign, military and economic policy than we have seen for a decade or more, he was still unable to let go of his tendency to label an oppositional force in the current arena of conflict with an insulting nickname designed to put them out of action. That worked in the presidential race, but on the world stage, when dealing with dictators rapidly gaining nuclear capability, it is perhaps unwise to engage in this sort of conduct, particularly when the stakes are so high.
Here we can see the conservative internationalism evident in the Trump administration at war with the personal proclivity of the President’s more unfiltered tendencies. We must hope that some semblance of conservative prudence asserts itself if we are to avoid travelling further down the road of escalation.