President Donald Trump spoke his version of truth-to-power -- or powers, all 193 member nations of the United Nations.
His first address to the General Assembly was vintage Trump – a 40-minute mixture of bombast, insults, threats, praise for the ideals of the UN, and a declaration of his belief that America’s pursuit of its own interests was in America’s best interests and the world’s. The speech, which Mr. Trump read from a teleprompter, was also long on contradictions and short on proposals for solving the threats he denounced.
Making headlines was Mr. Trump’s most explicit warning to date to North Korea about its continuing efforts to develop nuclear weapons that could reach the U.S. The president warned that America would “totally destroy” North Korea if forced to “defend itself or its allies.” Though that declaration elicited gasps from the diplomats and criticism from the media, it was a more explicit version of his earlier threat that Pyongyang would be met with “fire and fury” if it continued threatening America and its allies with its nuclear and missile tests. In vintage Trumpian form, he mocked North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as a “rocket man” on a “suicide mission.” Demanding the “denuclearization” of the peninsula, Mr. Trump did not call for a resumption of negotiations to achieve that goal.
He also took aim at the “rogue” states and movements that threaten American security and world peace -- “radical Islamic terrorism,” a term he has only intermittently deployed. And he criticized what he called the “rogue regimes” of Iran, Syria, Venezuela, and Cuba, calling upon his “fellow leaders to join the United States in the fight to defeat” their threats to peace.
Singling out Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro by name, he accused Venezuela’s leader of starving his own people and transforming his once oil-rich country into a land of desperation and corruption. He said he was prepared to take “further action” against the regime, but offered no hint of what that might include.
Mr. Trump bashed Iran and the nuclear deal as “one of the worst and most one-sided” transactions the nation has ever entered into -- an “embarrassment.” While he stopped short of rejecting the agreement, he clearly hinted that the U.S. might walk away from it, setting the stage for an eventual rejection in October.
In each of these cases, however, Mr. Trump offered no specific proposals for countering the threat he claims they pose. And several diplomats noted the inherent contradiction in Mr. Trump’s attack on North Korea for failing to negotiate an end to its nuclear program and his near abandonment of Iran’s agreement suspending its nuclear efforts, a deal monitored and endorsed by the UN. While calling for world help in isolating North Korea -- and praising Russia and China for cutting off some fuel to Pyongyang -- he seemed prepared to go it alone to counter Iran’s alleged nuclear ambitions.
The president’s speech elicited some applause from the assembled diplomats, but mostly uncomfortable silence. His shrill tone and bombast was reminiscent of his campaign rallies. But his base undoubtedly welcomed his assertion that the rogue states menacing America’s and world stability were “going to hell,” and that America was being “taken advantage of” in paying 22 percent of the UN’s expenses. He highlighted the hypocrisy of the appointment of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers to the UN’s human rights council. While praising Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon for caring for “horribly treated” Syrian refugees, he suggested that America would take few more of them. For the cost of settling one refugee in the U.S., he said, ten refugees could be resettled closer to home.
The president’s maiden speech to the UN was really two speeches. The first, a conventional endorsement of the UN. Mr. Trump’s praise for the U.N.’s humanitarian activities and peacekeeping, its enormous “potential,” and its lofty objectives, was a speech that President George H.W. Bush might have delivered. But his bombast, threats and insults were delivered by the “America First” president his fellow Americans have come to know through his speeches and tweets. What the world’s diplomats made of this display is hard to say. But North Korea’s delegation did not immediately react to Mr. Trump’s threats and taunts. As Mr. Trump began speaking, most of its delegation left the chamber.