President Trump’s address to the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday may have been the most hostile, dangerous, and intellectually confused—if not outright dishonest—speech ever delivered by an American president to an international body.
It began—as all Trump speeches must begin, it seems—with a boast of how much better life in America has been since his election: stock market up, unemployment down, military stronger. This was a clue that the speech, though sometimes couched in the language of international principles (and dotted with thanks to the U.N. for helping out here and there), was really going to be about Trump—and Trump’s dark vision of what the world should look like.
In surprisingly stark terms, he warned that if “Rocket Man” (his new nickname for Kim Jong-un) doesn’t dismantle his nuclear program, the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He all but announced the abrogation of the Iran nuclear deal, repeating his utterly false claim that it’s “one of the worst and most one-sided” deals the U.S. has ever made. He singled out Cuba, Venezuela, and (again) Iran for their horrid human rights records and, in the case of Iran, support of terrorist groups.
Yet he said nothing about the similarly dreadful records of Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In fact, he praised Saudi Arabia—where, he noted, he was “greatly honored” to speak earlier this year—for its agreement to stop “radical Islamic terrorism,” ignoring the Saudis’ longtime support for certain terrorist movements and the country’s cruel bombing of civilians in Yemen, with our own shameful abetting.
Several times in the speech, Trump listed the “pillars of peace” as “sovereignty, security, and prosperity,” but he evinced little understanding of what those terms mean. He was particularly contradictory about sovereignty. At times, he expressed the concept clearly: “In America,” he said, “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.” And: “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.”
He even went so far as to say that the “true question” for the United Nations and for people all over the world is this: “Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their future?”
These are good questions, consistent with the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which consecrated the sovereignty of nation-states as the basis for diplomacy. But if Trump believes what he’s saying here, he should know he has no business threatening to “completely destroy” North Korea, a country of 25 million people, because its leaders are testing missiles and nuclear weapons. Certainly the emergence of a Pyongyang nuclear arsenal is a worrisome development, but from the North Koreans’ point of view, it may be a way—perhaps, as they see it, the only way—to guarantee their own security and sovereignty in a world that they see as threatening.
Trump vaguely threatened action against Cuba and Venezuela, attributing their economic failures to the inherent shortcomings of socialism. But, again, if respect for sovereignty is a pillar of world order, should anyone care what ideology or economic system a country decides to pursue, as long as it doesn’t seek to impose it on others?
Especially since the rise of al-Qaida and the safe harbors its militias found within the territories of failed states, politicians, scholars, and diplomats have debated whether sovereignty has, or should have, limits—whether certain circumstances justify regime change or some other form of intervention within a foreign country. But Trump seemed unaware of this debate. He invoked sovereignty when it suited his purposes—and proposed violating sovereignty, without a thought, when it didn’t.
And Trump’s main purpose in this speech was to tout the doctrine of America First. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first,” he said, “just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always—and should always—put your countries first.” Unless, of course, your country is North Korea, Iran, Cuba, or Venezuela—in which case Trump insists that your country’s real interests lies in aligning those interests with our interests: with his interests.
Some of Trump’s statements were salutary. In his one jab at Russia and China, he called for the respect of borders in Ukraine and the South China Sea. He was right in saying the United States shoulders a disproportionate burden for the U.N.’s budget. He was right in reminding the assembled that the U.N.’s main purpose, when it was founded after World War II, was to provide collective security against aggressors.
But his specific calls for actions were not at all in the spirit of the U.N. charter; beyond that, they posed as much danger as any actions by the leaders that he criticized and threatened. Even if you believe that Kim’s nuclear program warrants a military response, it is senseless—strategically risky and morally appalling—to threaten the total destruction of North Korea if Kim continues on his course. Even if you have problems with some aspect of the Iran nuclear deal (though, in fact, the deal was far-reaching and equitable), it is senseless to scuttle it, not just because Iran is abiding by its terms but also because doing so would harden Kim’s will to push on with his nuclear program. Why should he negotiate limits on his nukes, much less give them up, when Iran did the same—and the United States seems set to pull out of the deal anyway?
Finally, the Iran deal was a multinational pact—signed not only by the U.S. and Iran but also by Britain, France, Russia, China, Germany, and a delegation from the European Union. Why should anyone, anywhere, trust the United States if it pulls out of such a pact simply because of a president’s ignorance and pique?
Here and there in his speech, Trump scattered words of praise on the member states of the U.N.—for their offerings of assistance to the victims of American hurricanes, for the Security Council’s sanctions against North Korea, for their general principles. He talked, in the end, about the need to “fight together” and “sacrifice together,” but his actual vision held no place for the bonds of collective security. He painted a picture of the world as a dark place of anarchy and aggression—and his vision of a desired future was no brighter or more orderly.