Elephants in the Room
The Fatal Flaw in Trump’s U.N. Speech Could Be Disastrous for American Power
Urging states to act uncompromisingly in their self-interest is actually not in America’s national interest.
First the good news: President Donald Trump did not sound like the late, great U.N. fulminator Hugo Chávez, nor the incendiary former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The speech did not last over an hour. There was no podium thumping, no banging his shoe on the table like Nikita Khrushchev. And none of the vituperative castigation of the United Nations that we heard from Trump on the campaign trail. It’s a low standard, but the jury was out on whether the president would meet it. Those heads of state that did show up (more to that later) were riveted in their seats like spectators at Indy races, perhaps secretly hoping for a fiery crash.
The speech was long on nationalist rhetoric — many a call for patriotism by citizens of every country — but short on the dark vision from the president’s inaugural address. Someone, probably Nadia Schadlow or H.R. McMaster, slipped Steven Miller a note that those lines wouldn’t play so well on the international stage. So this was definitely an attempt by the president and his team to put the most attractive face possible on his “America First” rhetoric. And they are to be commended for it: they realized the president has both an obligation and an opportunity at the U.N. General Assembly to make America’s case to the world, and they didn’t squander it.
But the president’s strategists and speechwriters seem not to understand that urging nations to act uncompromisingly in their self-interest is actually not in America’s national interest. Because the most self-interested strategy by most countries in the world is to hang back and let the United States do the hard work. It’s curious they should miss that point, since the president’s main foreign-policy grievance is that other nations take advantage of us and need to be pulled into greater contribution.
When he said “the scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that rejects every principle on which the U.N. is based,” it may have resonated oddly with other nations, given that the entire premise of Trump’s speech was a rejection of the reason they engage with others at the United Nations.
Moreover, the president’s vision of the international order as expressed today is indistinguishable from that of China or Russia. There was no expression of the higher values that animate American foreign policy and thereby encourage other countries to help advance these common interests. There was no expression that our values actually make the world safer and better because free people are better neighbors and more responsible international actors than authoritarian governments. Transactional foreign policy based on immutable state sovereignty means that democracy promotion, human rights advocacy, and atrocity prevention will not be American priorities.
Ambassador Nikki Haley confidently asserted in advance of the speech that the president would “hug the right people and hit the right people.” I heard the hits — on Iran, Venezuela, and North Korea — but the hugs were less resounding. President Trump called the North Korean government “depraved” and detailed their depravity: the treatment of Otto Warmbier, use of VX nerve agent in an assassination, abducting Japanese citizens. Trump was reaching for the ringing moral clarity that George W. Bush brought to the task of enumerating the Axis of Evil. He couldn’t quite hit the note, though. Perhaps it was his flippant “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission.” Or perhaps it was his threat that the United States will “have no choice but totally destroy” North Korea.
The United States is most effective at the United Nations when it sounds like a reluctant sheriff (to pinch Richard Haass’s excellent book title). It makes our expansive power easier to support by other countries. It causes global publics to give our government the benefit of the doubt when we’re wrong, which we often are. And it makes the American public more willing to accept the eventual recourse to war. This president, especially, will need that goodwill — not least from the American public he has so deeply divided — should he carry out his threat to destroy North Korea.
Granted, few Americans were listening to the president’s speech. Fewer foreigners than usual were listening, either. Neither the leader of Iran nor the leader of North Korea were present to hear the dire warnings of disaster that will befall them if they don’t repent. The premier of China did not attend UNGA this year, nor the leaders of Germany or Russia. And perhaps this is the most worrisome aspect of Trump’s brand of U.S. hegemony: the erosion of American soft power. Foreign heads of state don’t want to participate in this particular staging of The Apprentice. The U.N. was put in New York because other countries wanted to hear from us and have us hear them; that is less so now. And it will make everything the United States tries to do in the world harder and costlier.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images