US President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on September 25 once again raises questions about whether Washington has a clear and consistent strategy to advance the “America First” doctrine around the world in a way that serves US national interests and contributes to global stability.
Trump’s speech1 has been widely covered and some of the claims he made were vigorously fact checked, but what does this speech, and the administration’s overall performance in New York this week, tell us about US strategy and how the “America First” doctrine is effectively translated into policy?
All the speeches by the president and his team have emphasized America’s strength, superiority, and exceptionalism—while Washington has never been more divided and polarized. The president noted that the international community should welcome the booming US economy and the expansive US military even as he gave an impression that he believes the world operates as a zero-sum game. He also argued that the sovereignty of nations, and not global governance, leads to “safety, prosperity, and peace.” Trump affirmed that “around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.” However, his administration does not shy away from using its power in the global financial system to punish and impose sanctions on allies and foes alike, thus dictating how they should behave.
Trump’s nationalistic speech is revisiting traditional dichotomies about unilateralism and multilateralism, but his rhetoric cannot characterize the United States as a victim of globalization. In fact, the supremacy of the United States in the global system, be it on the geopolitical or the economic level, is a stark contrast to such a narrative.
Trade “must be fair and reciprocal,” Trump noted. “The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer,” he added, while completely disregarding the competitive advantage of US corporations in the global economy. He specifically targeted China—without naming it— by condemning countries that “use government-run industrial planning and state-owned enterprises to rig the system in their favor. They engage in relentless product dumping, forced technology transfer, and the theft of intellectual property.” Trump declared that “those days are over. We will no longer tolerate such abuse.”
What is more striking, however, in this UN week in New York is the contradictions and conflicting interests of statements and speeches by members of the Trump Administration who spoke in different tones and reflected an incoherent strategy, illustrating a wide gap between rhetoric and policy.
Focusing on China or Russia?
There is a prevailing view in the US establishment that Washington should shift focus from combatting terrorist groups to deterring “revisionist” states, though there is no clear consensus on the priority list of these strategic foes. While the US establishment has its eyes set on Russia’s interference in US politics, an emerging hawkish alliance in Washington is heightening the rhetoric against Tehran, and the president himself is fixated on China as a major strategic foe. This leaves Washington simultaneously pushing back on these three powers but with no clear strategy or apparent alliances.
During his speeches in New York, Trump did not mention Russian President Vladimir Putin nor did he directly push back on Moscow’s expansive policy. Ironically, while chairing the Security Council meeting, the US president alleged that China is interfering against him in the US congressional elections this November. This claim does not seem to be fully endorsed by the US intelligence community. It may even reflect Trump’s fear that farmers in Iowa and elsewhere in the United States who lost the Chinese market for their exports might turn against him and his Republican Party in the November elections. East Asia is one of many examples of how the Trump Administration often pursues conflicting foreign policy objectives, like simultaneously antagonizing China and denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. Indeed, conducting foreign policy based on domestic politics instead of national interest clouds the US global strategy.
Trump’s Inconsistent Policies Toward Middle East Issues
What was crystal clear in New York this week is the solidification of the US-led alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia. It was on display during the United Against Nuclear Iran summit on September 25, which gathered top diplomats from the United States, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. Israel’s Mossad chief, Yossi Cohen, also gave a separate speech during this conference on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York.
While Trump had tough words on Iran in his UN speech, he did not offer a new or a substantive approach. Rather, he linked finding a solution in Syria to deterring Iran, noting that “every solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria must also include a strategy to address the brutal regime that has fueled and financed it: the corrupt dictatorship in Iran.” Trump further asked the international community to “isolate” the Iranian regime and support the Iranian people “to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.” The more threatening language came from White House National Security Advisor John Bolton, who reprimanded Tehran in his conference speech: “if you cross us, our allies, or our partners … yes, there will indeed be hell to pay” and told the Iranian regime that “we will come after you.” Meanwhile, Trump spoke about his Iranian counterpart Hassan Rouhani as “an absolutely lovely man” and thanked Iran for its role in the September 17 Idlib agreement. Furthermore, the Pentagon prefers to contain—and not confront—Iran, despite Washington’s heightened rhetoric against Tehran. Moreover, US Special Representative for Syria Engagement, Ambassador James Jeffrey, noted in a briefing on September 27 that “we’re not going to force the Iranians out of Syria. We don’t even think the Russians can force the Iranians out of Syria, because force implies … military action … This is all about political pressure.”
On Syria, Trump spoke about the need to seek a political solution “that honors the will of the Syrian people” and urged the relaunch of the UN-led peace process, one that would require some sort of US engagement with Russia—a policy approach that is not widely endorsed in the US administration. Trump talked about the “eventual return” of Syrian refugees from neighboring countries “to be part of the rebuilding process,” but he did not explicitly link this return to reaching a political solution. He highlighted how Jordan is striving to address the needs of Syrian refugees, but he did not mention Turkey and Lebanon. The Trump Administration offered no concrete policy strategy or new policy approach to Syria, other than his recent announcement that US troops will remain in Syria until Iranian forces leave the country.
On the wider Middle East challenges, Trump offered a more balanced approach to US relations with members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) without mentioning the GCC crisis itself and the need to resolve it. He mentioned the “regional strategic alliance” the United States is coordinating with the GCC plus Jordan and Egypt to “advance prosperity, stability and security” across the region. Trump promoted the United States as a major energy exporter while criticizing OPEC policy. At the same time, he issued a direct rebuke to Saudi Arabia: “We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices.”
Additionally, Trump noted that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem was meant to advance peace between Palestinians and Israelis “by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Yet, he seemed to support for the first time the two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, saying “that’s what I think works best … That’s my feeling” (it is worth noting that this is despite the fact that Trump’s Jerusalem declaration violates one of main the premises of that solution). Trump also decreased his attacks against the Palestinian Authority. Overall, the Trump Administration’s proclamations at the UNGA regarding key Middle East issues do not correspond with US actions. They even contradicted other statements by his team, thus intensifying and exposing the gaps in the administration’s strategy.
US Role in the International System
Trump not only advanced his nationalist agenda but encouraged other nations to do the same. He said the United States “has recently strengthened our law to better screen foreign investments in our country for national security threats,” which further securitize and regulate foreign investment. Trump warned of the dangers of illegal immigration and noted that the long-term solution is achieved “only by upholding national borders, destroying criminal gangs” in order to help refugees return home and “make their countries great again.” He affirmed that Secretary of State Mike Pompeo will reexamine US foreign aid and see “whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.” He added, “We are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.” Trump affirmed that the United States would not pay more than 25 percent of the United Nations’ peacekeeping budget.
President Trump is not just fundamentally changing the role of the United States in the international system but also the basic tenets of the global order that America has built largely since World War II. Further, he is burning bridges with traditional American allies, such as next door in Canada and across the Atlantic. While Trump’s tone at the United Nations this week was moderate compared to last year’s, the transformative impact of his administration’s policy is disconcerting. The international community seems to have been evading a confrontation with Trump at the United Nations and resigned to a hope that the US political system would somehow restrain him or vote him out of office—perhaps before the dynamics of the international system are permanently altered.
1 All quotes refer to the transcript of his speech, linked here.