President Donald Trump essentially flipped the finger at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning, delivering a speech just seven minutes long—not quite half his allotted time, possibly the shortest U.N. address by a major leader ever—in a monotonously hectoring tone that didn’t bother paying even lip service to the body’s international ideals.
In the speech (which, like those of most other leaders this year, was prerecorded remotely), Trump railed at China for spreading the COVID-19 pandemic and for ravaging the environment, claiming that the United States last year lowered carbon emissions more steeply than any other country but gets no credit for it. He boasted that he had eliminated ISIS “100 percent.” He claimed that NATO is stronger than ever and that new American weapons are “at an advanced level like we’ve never had before, like we’ve never even thought of before,” and claimed that, with this new strength, America is “fulfilling its destiny as a peacemaker,” citing the deals struck between Serbia and Kosovo as well as the “landmark peace deals” involving Israel, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates. “There is no blood in the sand,” he said, citing a common description of Middle Eastern politics. “Those days are hopefully over.”
Finally, Trump trashed the “same tired voices” who had offered “the same tired solutions”—referring, presumably, to his predecessors and to other world leaders. “I’m proud of putting America First,” he said, “just as you”—addressing the other heads of state—“should be putting your countries first.”
There were many inaccuracies, as well as one comically misleading claim, in this speech.
First, while U.S. and Kurdish military forces did wipe out the ISIS caliphate (accelerating a strategy developed under President Barack Obama), an estimated 18,000 ISIS fighters remain in Syria and Iraq, and U.S. forces are still battling against them.
Second, the accords he cited were not “peace” agreements. Serbia and Kosovo normalized economic relations (their peace deal was signed in the 1990s); ditto for Israel’s deals with Bahrain and the UAE (countries with which it was never at war). The accords aren’t trivial, but they do not augur broad peace in the Middle East.
Third, NATO nations are spending moderately more on defense, but trans-Atlantic cohesion is at an all-time low, thanks to Trump’s incessant dissing of alliances in general and this alliance in particular, even casting doubt on whether the U.S. would come to the defense of a member nation under attack.
Fourth, Trump has boosted U.S. defense spending, but his talk of unheard-of advanced weapons—probably the hypersonic glider, which he recently called a “hydrasonic” missile and nicknamed the “superduper”—is exaggeration. The weapon doesn’t exist as yet, its mission is unclear, and existing nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles travel at hypersonic speed.
Fifth and finally, while Trump is right to criticize China for its failure to contain the coronavirus and for its lethal levels of pollution, he said nothing about his own severe shortcomings on both fronts. Here is where the comically misleading part of his speech comes in. Trump was correct that, last year, the U.S. lowered carbon emissions more steeply than any other nation, but he failed to explain why. It had nothing to do with Trump’s policies. It was due entirely to market forces—the rising demand for natural gas (and, to some extent, renewable sources of energy) displacing the demand for coal. The irony is that Trump has lashed out at renewables (claiming, for instance, that wind turbines cause cancer) and has called for a revival of the coal industry (fruitlessly because of the aforementioned market factors).
Not long after Trump’s image vanished from the screen, up came that of China’s President Xi Jinping. Xi’s speech, twice as long as Trump’s, was no more satisfying—a string of empty bromides. “We need to increase confidence and trust,” it began. “Let us join hands—together, we can make the world a better place for everyone,” it ended. There was little concrete in between.
The contrast could not have been starker, but in some ways, the two leaders’ presentations were gloomily similar. Xi invoked the lingo of internationalism while sidestepping his many violations of its principles. Trump didn’t bother with the lingo and boasted of violating these principles. And there we have the international relations of 2020 in a proverbial nutshell: The leaders of the two largest economies were both flippant—Xi evasively, Trump blatantly—toward the U.N. and the global crises it tries but fails to address.