Trump at the United Nations
20 Sep 2017|

President Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly has attracted considerable media attention—though mostly for his comments about North Korea and Iran. But I’d urge readers to examine the full text. That’s not because it’s an enjoyable literary exercise; Trump isn’t a natural wordsmith. Nor is he prone to over-intellectualising his core political instincts; he’s not Barack Obama. Still, the speech provides a fascinating set of insights into the Trumpian world view. And parts of it—especially those references to the need for strong sovereign nations to secure their future—have a portentous ring. Here’s a series of observations.

First, the speech reaffirms the Trump doctrine of ‘America first’—‘we can no longer be taken advantage of’. Indeed, there’s a defence of the doctrine as the natural bias of all statesmen: ‘I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.’ But the doctrine is stated in an oddly qualified form. Each time he rehearses a key element, there’s a following thought beginning with a ‘but’. So, ‘the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition … But making a better life for our people also requires us to work together’. And ‘I will defend America’s interests above all else … But in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we … seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure’. At times, the speech reads almost as though Trump is arguing with himself about the limits of America first.

Second, there’s a strong endorsement of nationalism and sovereignty that permeates the entire text. From his early characterisation of sovereignty, security and prosperity as ‘three beautiful pillars … of peace’ to his closing call ‘for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism’, Trump’s speech turns at almost every key point on the virtues of strong, sovereign nations. True, those ‘proud, independent nations’ are still expected to find common cause in their shared interests, but this isn’t a speech about the merits of cosmopolitanism. Trump cites President Truman when arguing that, if the United Nations is to have any hope of success, it must depend on the ‘independent strength of its members’.

Third, and flowing directly from that endorsement, is a strong advocacy of patriotism. Trump argues for ‘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’. He goes on: ‘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’. This theme of patriotism is an important one, because it answers one of Trump’s key questions: ‘Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures?’

That notion—of acting now to protect the future—surfaces at a number of points in the speech. ‘We will slide down the path of complacency, numb to the challenges, threats, and even war 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?’ It’s a theme that adds a disturbing resonance to the speech. But it underlines an important point: Trump is saying, as clearly as he can, that he will not allow future strategic threats to the United States to emerge on his watch.

With that framework in mind, let’s turn to the comments on North Korea, one of those ‘rogue regimes’ that are ‘the scourge of our planet today’. The speech describes a ‘depraved regime’, ‘a band of criminals’ that starves, imprisons and tortures its own citizens, while pursuing nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles that ‘[threaten] the entire world’. Trump states bluntly that ‘if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, [the US] will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea’. Some might imagine that he’s signalling a willingness to embark on some new, finely crafted deterrence relationship between Washington and Pyongyang. I don’t think that’s the message. The threat is nested in a speech that basically says it’s important to confront threats now, rather than leaving them to grow.

A more intriguing question is whether the threat to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea constitutes an act of nuclear compellence. That is, is Trump threatening nuclear annihilation to compel North Korean denuclearisation? Well, he’s certainly clear that ‘it is time for North Korea to realize that … denuclearization is its only acceptable future’. But there’s nothing about the threat that suggests American use of its nuclear weapons to secure that objective. The threshold for US nuclear use on the Korean peninsula has always been high—not least because China and two US allies live close by. This speech doesn’t change that threshold. Still, Pyongyang’s leaders ought to be reading it closely.