President Trump’s second address to the United Nations General Assembly started out awkwardly this morning. The president was late for his appearance—by tradition, the president of the United States, the host country, speaks second at the General Debate—so Ecuadorian President Lenín Moreno was slotted into his spot. Then, Trump’s boast that his “administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” was met with scattered laughter from the audience:
But after that, it was a low-key speech, by Trump’s standards, that touched on many of his favorite themes: defending U.S. immigration and trade policies and, at one point, literally calling on other governments to “make their countries great again.” But he mostly avoided lines like his threat in last year’s speech to “totally destroy” North Korea.
Trump has obviously changed his tune on North Korea and this year made sure to “thank chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he’s taken, though much work remains to be done.” The speech also included some notable misleading and exaggerated claims, such as his statement that construction on a “major border wall” has started. Referring to the controversial recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital last year, Trump defined his overall foreign policy approach as “principled realism,” saying, “we will not be held hostage to all dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again.”
As expected, the harshest rhetoric this year was reserved for Iran, whose leaders Trump accused of plundering “the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.” In an odd turn of phrase, Trump also urged support for “Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.” Tuesday is shaping up as something of a showdown, with Iranian President Hasan Rouhani due to address the chamber later the same day. Prior to his speech, Trump tweeted, “Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!” Rouhani, in response, pointedly said, “We have never made such a request for a meeting with the President of the United States.”
Late on Monday, the European Union rebuked Trump’s stance on the Iran nuclear deal by announcing it would establish a special payment system to allow companies to continue financial transactions with the country, without exposure to U.S. sanctions, though it’s far from clear if this will be enough to keep the deal from collapsing once those sanctions go back into effect in November. With energy prices rising, Trump also took a shot at other oil-producing countries, saying, “OPEC and OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it. Nobody should like it.”
Notably absent from the speech was any mention of climate change, coming just after Secretary-General António Guterres referred to this as “a pivotal moment” to slow runaway global warming.
While reportedly written, like last year’s address, mostly by Trump adviser Stephen Miller, this year’s speech also bore the unmistakable influence of national security adviser John Bolton, with shots fired at some of his favorite bugbears, like the International Criminal Court, and a heavy emphasis on the importance of national sovereignty.
“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” Trump said in one particularly Boltonian passage. He called on other countries to “reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism around the world.” There was something of a contradiction between Trump’s promise that “the United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship” and his call, following his condemnation of the Maduro government in Venezuela, for all countries to “resist socialism.”
But it’s not exactly news that the Trump administration is comfortable employing human rights rhetoric when discussing Iran and Venezuela while withholding it anywhere else.
In one notable passage, Trump singled out four countries that exemplify the “beautiful constellation of nations” present at the U.N.: India, Israel, Poland, and Saudi Arabia. That is, three countries with populist, ethnic nationalist governments and one absolute monarchy.
In another eyebrow-raising section, Trump invoked the Monroe Doctrine by name, saying, “It has been the formal policy of our country since President Monroe that we reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere and in our own affairs.” It’s not clear exactly what interference he was referring to—presumably not Russian meddling in the region’s elections—but the remark is likely to irritate governments in Latin America but be received well by Russia and China, who have both argued for their own rights as superpowers over local spheres of influence.
Trump went relatively easy on the U.N. itself, calling it a body with “unlimited potential,” while also defending the U.S. withdrawal from the Human Rights Council, making clear that the U.S. will not sign on to this year’s Global Compact on Migration and vowing to reduce the U.S. share of spending on U.N. programs including peacekeeping operations.
Trump’s rhetoric at the U.N. lectern may have been more conciliatory than normal, but off the stage, his foreign policy continues to deepen America’s isolation.