In the lead-up to President Donald Trump’s maiden speech before the United Nations General Assembly, there were whispers that we would see a new Trump. After weeks of being schooled by Chief of Staff John Kelly, the White House’s own Henry Higgins, our nativist president would renew America’s commitment to upholding the world order. With reports that the administration was also considering renewing the U.S.’s commitment to the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, it had the possibility to be a momentous event: A normalization of relations between the U.S. and the rest of the world, after months of upheaval.
It was not to be. Instead, Trump gave a dark and tempestuous speech in which he referred to Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man” and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. He labeled the Iran nuclear deal an “embarrassment” and strongly signaled that he planned to rip it up. In Trump’s spin on the Axis of Evil speech, the Iraq slot was given to Venezuela; while poorly cosplaying Ronald Reagan, he attempted to turn Venezuela into a cautionary tale: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”
Trump was belligerent and bombastic, threatening to start or exacerbate a number of conflicts, while ranting about refugees and free trade. It was a speech clearly influenced by adviser Stephen Miller, who many presumed had been cowering in some corner of the White House ever since Steve Bannon’s ouster in August. When it comes to foreign policy, at least, the Bannon wing is still very much alive.
Most strikingly, the speech made stabs at a foreign policy vision. “As long as I hold this office,” Trump intoned, “I will defend America’s interests above all else. But in fulfilling our obligations to our own nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interest to seek a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.” This has been interpreted by some supporters and some detractors as a return to realpolitik, but in fact there’s no overarching principle, not even Trump’s notion of “sovereignty,” which explains the various, sometimes schizophrenic approaches to foreign problems outlined in the speech. Rather, Trump gave what could be called his Global Carnage speech, ranting about crises—“Major portions of the world are in conflict and some, in fact, are going to hell,” he said—while proposing policies that would only make those crises worse.
From the very beginning, it was clear that this was not going to be your typical U.N. speech from the president of the United States. The campaign version of Donald Trump showed up, rolling out a laundry list of dubious accomplishments since he took office:
Fortunately, the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8th. The stock market is at an all-time high—a record. Unemployment is at its lowest level in 16 years, and because of our regulatory and other reforms, we have more people working in the United States today than ever before. Companies are moving back, creating job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time. And it has just been announced that we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defense. Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been.
Trump then got down to what could be considered the theme of his address: that multilateral organizations like the U.N. suppress the sovereignty of nations and that the world is better off when nations act in their own self-interest. This was very John Bolton–esque, representing a distinct strain of foreign policy thinking on the American right. But even George W. Bush’s 2002 address before the General Assembly—the most bellicose speech by a U.S. president in recent memory, in which he advocated for regime change in Iraq—still emphasized the value of international cooperation. Bush, after all, was there to get other countries to join his invasion.
The problem for Trump is that he couldn’t hold a consistent line on self-interest and sovereignty. Arguing that nations should embrace self-interest while calling on them to work together to solve urgent problems like North Korea is not an easy needle to thread. And Trump, no master of subtlety, failed to do it.
“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,” he said at one point.” 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. ... 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 the kind of confusing argument that allowed pundits during the campaign to declare Trump a “non-interventionist,” even as he repeatedly threatened to escalate bombing in the Middle East. American presidents rarely make it, as Spencer Ackerman noted, because it’s typically employed by strongmen arguing against outside interference, as they crack down on internal dissent. It’s been similarly employed to justify any number of military interventions, as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimea will testify.
After this discussion of sovereignty, Trump turned to North Korea, the perpetual pariah state and longtime United Nations topic of conversation. His discussion of obliterating North Korea was terrifying, but he also thanked Russia and China, two of the regime’s enablers, for supporting sanctions against it. It seemed lost on Trump that he was calling on these countries to do more on North Korea, even as he neatly articulated the counter-argument: Why should they do something that’s in the United States’s interest and not theirs?
This muddled notion of self-interest infected other areas of the speech. He railed against the Iran nuclear deal and strongly suggested he would rip it up over the country’s funding of terrorism and the regime of Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. But he blamed global instability more on impoverished Venezuela than Putinist Russia, which is one of Iran’s key allies in Syria. Trump, in other words, was unwittingly laying out the very problem that has plunged Syria into an intractable, multi-dimensional civil war: The United States, Iran, Russia, Saudi Arabia are all acting rationally, pursuing their own self-interest. Trump’s solution—more sovereignty, more countries acting in their narrow self-interest—would only create more bloody gridlock.
The speech’s cognitive dissonance is the result of a president—and a group of presidential advisers—who have not thought deeply about the role of U.S. power or the value of international cooperation, where it’s necessary for nations to cede sovereignty in the hope of a greater good. But it also stemmed from the fact that this was a speech that wasn’t intended for Trump’s audience in New York City.
Instead, in the grand tradition of crazy United Nations speeches by the likes of Muammar Qaddafi and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Venezuela’s own Hugo Chavez, it was also aimed at a domestic audience. It was a speech for his base, which has become increasingly restless as Trump has backed away from key campaign promises. Far from opening a new chapter on American foreign policy, it was fundamentally disinterested in it.