Report

Trump Takes Aim at Iran, China, and the Global System in Big U.N. Speech

And draws a rare laugh from world leaders while boasting of his accomplishments.

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (John Moore/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 25. (John Moore/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday featured fresh threats against Iran, tirades against China and OPEC, and a full-throated retreat from the multilateral global order the United States helped to build.

And laughter. Trump’s boast that “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country” triggered a wave of chuckles from assembled world leaders. “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK,” he said.

Here are the main takeaways from Trump’s second big U.N. address.

Globalism Is a Bad Word

Trump provides further evidence, if any was needed, that the United States is renouncing U.S. leadership of a global system of institutions that have aimed to enhance international cooperation on a range of fronts, including trade, human rights, and migration.

He had special criticism for the World Trade Organization and what he called its inability to enforce fair trading practices. Trump took aim again at the International Criminal Court, which he falsely said “claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country.” And he said the United States will not take part in a new global compact to deal with unprecedented flows of migrants around the world. (“Migration should not be governed by an international body,” he said.)

Tying his disparate targets together was his administration’s rejection of multilateral institutions and a warm embrace of the nationalist populisms that have wracked politics around the world.

“We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump said.

Activists and Democratic lawmakers were quick to react.

“It remains deeply unsettling to see an American president stand before the United Nations—a body in which American leadership has changed the course of the world for decades—and espouse a worldview that undermines so much of what we helped build on the global stage,” said Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

“Trump’s overly-simplistic and distorted view of ‘sovereignty’ will be music to the ears of authoritarian leaders from Moscow to Beijing,” said Rob Berschinski, a senior vice president at the international human rights organization Human Rights First and a former Obama administration official.

Iran Is Still in His Crosshairs

Trump’s address didn’t have the bellicose language and war threats against North Korea that marked last year’s speech, but he vowed increasing economic pressure to force Iran to change its behavior. He said Tehran used revenue from sanctions relief to pursue missile technology and foment terrorist groups in the region, especially in Syria and Yemen.

Trump said that the United States intends to ramp up economic pressure on Iran, and he urged other countries to “isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues.” The Trump administration’s sanctions on Iran’s economy, and especially its oil sector, are already crushing Tehran’s oil exports and causing economic pain inside the country.

He even hinted that states should encourage revolution in Iran to ensure the country never obtains a nuclear weapon.

“[They cannot] possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead,” he said. “We ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”

OPEC Ain’t No Friend of Mine

Facing rising oil prices just weeks before crucial midterm elections, Trump used his U.N. speech to lambast the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, which he blamed for withholding production and jacking up crude prices.

“OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it. Nobody should like it,” Trump said. “We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good.”

He hinted that he would seek compensation for the billions of dollars per year that the United States spends in defending free flows of oil out of the Middle East. They must contribute substantially to military protection from now on. We are not going to put up with it, these horrible prices, much longer,” he said.

Oil prices are now above $80 a barrel—but OPEC has boosted oil output in recent months. The rise is largely because of the Trump administration’s successful efforts to knock Iran out of the oil market, creating a looming supply shortfall.

Trade: ‘Those Days Are Over’

Trump reserved some of his harshest condemnation for the global trading system and countries like China that he says are gaming the system and hurting U.S. interests—suggesting there’s no quick end in sight to the escalating U.S.-China trade war.

“We will no longer tolerate such abuse. We will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated, and our wealth to be plundered and transferred,” he said.

He took particular aim at China’s behavior since joining the World Trade Organization at the beginning of the century, blaming it for the loss of millions of U.S. jobs and trillions of dollars in trade imbalances.

“Countries were admitted to the World Trade Organization that violate every single principle on which the organization is based, while the United States and many of the nations played by the rules. These countries use government-run industrial planning and state-owned enterprises to rig the system,” he said.

He decried “broken and bad trade deals,” and then celebrated his administration’s minor revisions to the existing trade pact with South Korea and shrinking America’s North American free trade arrangements by more than half.

Colum Lynch is Foreign Policy’s award-winning U.N.-based senior diplomatic reporter. @columlynch

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