On September 19, President Donald Trump took to the floor of the 72nd annual United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York and gave his first speech before the body. There were numerous questions leading up to the speech about whether the president would extend a hand to the multilateral body that he so often demonizes. The end result, however, was a nearly 50-minute speech that was ominous, often contradictory, and filled with nationalist rhetoric about sovereignty (mentioned over 20 times) and self-determination. In it, Trump also included a reference to his election victory and boasted about his perceived successes in office, as well as general insults about his foreign opponents.
‘America First’ on the World Stage
Much of the president’s speech was not new. He repeated his “America first” and “principled realism” positions and riffed on “terrible” or “embarrassing” deals (be it trade, nuclear weapons, or the Iran nuclear agreement). He also prioritized security and counterterrorism cooperation. Instead of using this international platform to instill a sense of cooperation and unity with leaders of the world, Trump opted to take to the floor and justify why each country should look inward and focus on itself first and foremost.
He peppered his much-anticipated address with statements about mutual sacrifice and cooperation, but when assessed in aggregate, his speech presented a paradox: sacrifice for the greater good only after taking all the necessary steps to ensure that each state’s interests come first. That simply is not how the United Nations works and it flies in the face of the body’s very mission.
In sum, the president’s speech at the United Nations was what one has come to expect from Donald Trump. Although statements made by the president of the United States matter, the Trump team sent their boss to the floor with a prepared speech that was needlessly belligerent and inconsistent with the United States’ long-held role atop the global order.
Putting Iran on Notice, Again
Donald Trump’s disdain for Iran was crystal clear in this speech. Many of the president’s remarks ridiculed the government of Iran. He even predicted that the Iranian people would one day have to decide whether to stand up to the regime in Tehran; Trump ostensibly was calling for regime change through a popular uprising.
In line with his previous statements as a presidential candidate, President Trump derided the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA)—to the applause of the Israeli delegation—as the most embarrassing deal to which the United States has ever agreed. His rhetoric, while not unusual, holds much more weight at present as the administration must decide in less than one month if it will certify that Iran is in compliance with the landmark nuclear deal. While Trump has certified Iran’s compliance twice to this point, it is increasingly difficult to see him signing off on Iranian compliance after criticizing the deal in front of the largest gathering of world leaders.
Trump’s belligerence was clearly a calculated plan by his administration, as he and his advisors seem to view bellicose rhetoric and threats as strength. For this president, it is not just about winning against an opponent, but humiliating them in the process. However, Iran is not the undisputed pariah of the world anymore since Washington’s allies in Europe and its rivals in Russia and China no longer unconditionally support ostracizing Iran to the extent advocated by Donald Trump.
It can be useful to take a “no nonsense” stance against Iran’s problematic behavior, but to go above and beyond trying to insult the country will undermine any future opportunity for cooperation. Whether Trump likes it or not, Iran is an important player in the Middle East and there will be times when his administration needs to reach out to the regime to de-escalate situations. As the Atlantic Council’s Iran expert, Barbara Slavin, noted, Trump sounded like George W. Bush who, 15 years ago, ruined all hopes of cooperating with the Islamic Republic.
The Syrian Quagmire
When addressing one of the most disastrous conflicts in a generation, Donald Trump laid out a perplexing vision for a solution. He criticized Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his ruthless campaign against his own citizens, but that only came after stating the United States would “seek the de-escalation of the Syrian conflict, and a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people.”
This begs the question, how exactly can the Syrian people—the very ones who have been systematically jailed, tortured, and bombed by the Syrian regime—exercise their will against a tyrant who enjoys the support of two foreign militaries? Given the choice, would the Syrian people choose to allow Assad to remain in power? Trump’s statement also illustrates the administration’s loose understanding of the nature of the conflict. The Syrian people once tried to mobilize, peacefully, and let their collective will be known, but Assad responded so brutally, helping to spark the civil war that, eventually, evolved into a regional proxy war.
Trump then addressed the refugee crisis that has stemmed from the seven-year war. He began by thanking the United Nations and individual countries like Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey for their support of Syrian refugees. He then moved to explain how compassionate the United States is toward refugees, measuring his administration’s compassion in dollars spent. The US government, he said, will financially support those countries that take in and provide for Syrian refugees fleeing their country, “out of the goodness of our hearts.”
The president went on to explain to world leaders—some of whom are overseeing countries that are teetering on the edge of stability due to their compassion and willingness to take in an influx of refugees—that US financial support would be much more effective if it were used to settle refugees not in the United States, but in the regions nearest their home countries. While he used softened language to justify this policy about keeping refugees closer to home so they could more easily be repatriated, it sounded very much like the justification for a previously decided conclusion. This administration—staffed with immigration hardliners—has never intended to allow Syrian refugees into the United States (see Trump’s executive order on immigration), and he stood before the UNGA to justify that policy.
In the Middle East alone, there are two urgent conflicts that the president has previously expressed interest in solving but which he left out of his UN speech. Three of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, along with Egypt, have levied a blockade against their GCC neighbor, Qatar, for the last few months. While Trump has expressed willingness to mediate a “quick” resolution to the crisis, he made no mention of it before the assembly. He barely mentioned any of the Gulf countries by name, only issuing praise to Gulf countries generally—and Saudi Arabia, specifically—for their anti-terrorism efforts.
Most surprising, however, was his omission of Israel, Palestine, or the two countries’ decades-long conflict. Trump has repeatedly expressed his desire to reach the “ultimate deal” between the two, but he curiously failed to mention it in his speech. He did not even acknowledge US support for Israel, which is rare for US presidents. Perhaps the Trump team did not want to add unnecessary pressure on the president, or perhaps Trump’s Israeli friend, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asked him not to mention the conflict. Regardless of why the Israeli-Palestinian question was omitted, the fact that it was is an interesting takeaway from this speech.
Is There a Plan?
It is difficult to predict what will result from this speech. What is clear, however, is that the Trump Administration has little in mind for securing tangible solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems. Even more, this speech illustrates how Donald Trump and his team view the world, the United States’ place in it, and how countries should interact with each other.
The contradictions of the speech illustrate that this administration may be unsure of its true priorities. First and foremost, the composition of the speech gave the perception that multiple people wrote the president’s remarks. While this is not necessarily unusual, it is obvious that there are conflicting factions within the White House that have very different ideas about how to interact with the world, which this speech demonstrates.
The president begins by lauding the United Nations and the ability of different countries to come together to forge a common good—perhaps the work of more level-headed advisors like National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster. A few paragraphs later, however, Trump makes his first mention of state sovereignty and the importance of acting within a state’s best interests. Then the speech devolved into painting an ominous picture of trouble and strife—using apocalyptic terms about the “righteous many” and the “wicked few”—this is undoubtedly the work of the nationalist firebrand of the West Wing, Stephen Miller. By the end of the speech, Trump was simultaneously urging the states’ leaders to look out for their own citizens while also striving to “fight together” and “sacrifice together” for the greater good of the world.
The United States and the rest of the world are at a crossroads. President Donald Trump truly believes in “America first” isolationism and economic nationalism, but he is also being pulled toward the political center by certain advisors and cabinet members who understand the true nature of international consensus building. Unfortunately, these two positions may be irreconcilable with this president, who views cooperation as negotiations and, subsequently, zero-sum games. Indeed, for the United States to be first, everyone else must lose. In order to build multilateral efforts to address some of the world’s pressing problems, however, Donald Trump must formulate a coherent strategy to balance his desire for retaining sovereignty and sacrificing for the common good. His speech at the United Nations shows that the president does not have the command of the details necessary to reconcile these two positions, let alone lead the world in the efforts to combat some of its biggest problems.