In his first speech to the U.N. this week, Trump promised to “totally destroy” North Korea, a statement that sat poorly with world leaders.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself,” he said, referring to Jong-un by a nickname he first used on Twitter. North Korea’s foreign minister compared Trump’s U.N. speech to “the sound of a dog barking,” in its first response to the statement. Ri Yong Ho said he “felt sorry” for the president’s advisers, CNN reported. “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog dream.” In Korean, a “dog dream” means an absurd one that makes little sense.
Trump employed his usual bombastic style in a speech to the world’s foremost diplomatic body. Many members received it with varying degrees of horror. Here’s how he may have destabilized U.S. relations with more than just North Korea.
Trump insulted Iran (and it wasn’t alone)
In a speech in front of more than 100 world leaders and diplomats, Trump declared the Iran nuclear deal “an embarrassment.” He said some regions are “going to hell,” and revived his “radical Islamic terrorism” catchphrase. The president called the deal “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions.
“The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy,” the president continued. “It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.”
The deadline to re-certifying Iran’s compliance expires in October. U.S. officials say Trump plans to announce his intentions next month. He slammed Iran for its role in the Syrian war, as well as backing of U.S. adversaries throughout the Middle East. Trump did not explain how he expects the world to intervene. The president also had harsh words for Venezuela, as the next point demonstrates.
Trump doesn’t like other power-hungry demagogues
The president also lambasted Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. The U.S. recently imposed sanctions on that nation, in response to Maduro’s recent power grabs. Trump called the government’s ideology the heart of the issue.
“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented,” he said. He asked world leaders to isolate Maduro more aggressively, unless Venezuela becomes more democratic. In response, Maduro called Trump “the new Hitler” of international politics. He also accused Trump of threatening to assassinate him, which the president did not.
“Nobody threatens Venezuela and nobody owns Venezuela,” Maduro said. Tens of thousands of people have fled political turmoil, widespread food and medicine shortages, and triple-digit inflation, according to ABC. Brazilian President Michel Temer highlighted the exodus in his own speech, as well. He said, “In South America, there is no longer room for alternatives to democracy.”
“The American empire wants to step on all countries that want to advance, but we will not surrender,” said one protester. Trump threatened to build upon sweeping economic sanctions that the U.S. slapped on Venezuela last month if Maduro “persists on a path to impose authoritarian rule.” With Venezuela already unstable, Trump’s grandstanding doesn’t help anyone.
The president’s long-held “every man for himself” attitude showed in his next point.
Trump revived his controversial ‘America First’ promise
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said, to mixed responses. “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
Asking, “are we still patriots?” Trump pledged sovereignty. “Strong sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny,” he said.
The president defended the country’s right to push back against standard practices in international trade. He also lamented the costs of immigration on countries, and said that the U.S. will not insist other countries adopt its values. Much of his speech departed strongly from past U.N. speeches, and this section proved no exception. That’s a sentiment his staff has parroted before, and sovereignty comes as music to both Russia and China’s ears. Trump also promised not to push American values on those other sovereign nations. What those values stand for varies broadly, depending on who stands at the podium.
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson talks about how values and policy don’t mix
The U.S. secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, said the “America first” approach means divorcing U.S. foreign policy from values such as human rights and freedom, The Guardian reported. Tillerson said there were times when insistence that foreign countries abide by U.S. values got in the way of its pursuit of national interests.
“Our values around freedom, human dignity, the way people are treated – those are our values. Those are not our policies,” he explained. “In some circumstances, if you condition our national security efforts on someone adopting our values, we probably can’t achieve our national security goals. If we condition too heavily that others just adopt this value … it really creates obstacles to our ability to advance on our national security interests our economic interests.”
During Trump’s campaign, when he first trotted out the America First policy, the Anti-Defamation League decried it. “For many Americans, the term ‘America First’ will always be associated with and tainted by[anti-Semitic] history. In a political season that already has prompted a national conversation about civility and tolerance, choosing a call to action historically associated with incivility and intolerance seems ill-advised,” Jonathan A. Greenblatt, ADL CEO.
That said, what Tillerson and Trump believe do not always gel. Tillerson broke from Trump’s stance on racial violence after his comments on the white supremacy march in Charlottesville.
“We express America’s values from the State Department — our commitment to freedom, our commitment to equal treatment of people the world over,” Tillerson said on Fox News. “And that message has never changed. I don’t believe anyone doubts the American people’s values,” or the U.S. government’s willingness to defend them. “The president speaks for himself.”
Some hoped the president spoke for himself during the U.N. speech, the next comments demonstrate.
Bombastic posturing may have gone too far
CNN analysts called Trump’s casual nuclear weapons threat “chilling coming from an American president.” It appeared to reflect a strategy that increasing threats against Jong-un could cause him to capitulate – even though that so far fails to stem North Korea’s accelerating nuclear bid.
“It’s almost as if he was advised that upping the rhetoric will intimidate, or can have some intimidation effect on Kim Jong-un. I think that is a very risky proposition. I don’t see any evidence that is the case,” said former State Department spokesman John Kirby.
Others at the U.N. also expressed shock at his statements. “You could feel a wind had gone into the room when he said that,” a senior U.N. official told CNN. “People were taken aback. There were rumblings. It is as an emotional reaction.”
Trump’s speech also failed to present diplomatic options for dealing with North Korea. In fact, much of his speech lacked substance full-stop.
“The goals of the United Nations are to foster peace and promote global cooperation. Today, the president used it as a stage to threaten war,” said Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein. “He missed an opportunity to present any positive actions the U.N. could take with respect to North Korea, and he launched a diatribe against Iran, again offering no pathway forward.”
Missed opportunities abound, as the next issue demonstrates.
Trump’s comments contain lots of bluster, but not much substance
The Atlantic called Trump’s speech “one of the least effective, weakest, and indecisive ever given by an American president. “It’s not that it failed against some arbitrary standard set by the foreign-policy establishment he despises. It failed on its own terms. And how it failed tells us something important about where his foreign policy is headed.”
While the speech insulted and challenged no fewer than three world powers, he made few concrete promises. Even though sources close to Trump say he is poised to re-certify Iran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, he missed an opportunity to say so. Calling “the Iran deal” and “embarrassment” sounded like typical Trump: all bark and no bite.
Trump’s love for the element of surprise does not come as, well, a surprise to anyone. According to The Atlantic, “with Trump, there is no difference between unpredictability and indecisiveness. He does not know what he intends to do. So he feigns unpredictability.”
The president’s warning to North Korea, while bombastic, lacked actionable plans. He did not demonstrate how the regime’s nuclear tests threaten world peace, or note its tendency to cheat on agreements. He didn’t even mention the missiles or the reasons why Jong-un might want those weapons. Instead, he led with his typical hyperbole without anything to back it up. There’s one country Trump could have leveled with, but didn’t. Guess which?
Russia, on the other hand, got off easy
Trump also failed to condemn Russia’s attack on the United States’ democratic process. His speech left Russia out almost entirely, despite precedence set by Barack Obama.
“The message to Russia—and other would be aggressors—is clear: The U.S. policy on political warfare is unilateral disarmament,” the Atlantic explained. He did mention “threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” which points to dealings with China and Russia.
As he spoke, Russian and Chinese warships assembled in the Sea of Okhotsk north of Japan for a major naval exercise, the Daily Beast pointed out. Beijing and Moscow have the two most powerful naval fleets in the world, behind the U.S. Navy. The two countries started a five-day war game on Sept. 18. That date marks the 1931 explosion that decimated a section of Japanese railway in China, which the Japanese blamed on Chinese nationalists. That’s no coincidence. That naval wall could contain the American armada if U.S. does go to war with North Korea. The fact that China and Russia have started constructing it points to uncertainty as to Trump’s intention, concerns his U.N. speech did not allay.
Is the U.S. declaring war with North Korea tomorrow? Probably not. Bust history shows North Korea will only stand for Trump’s threats for so long. The camel’s back will break eventually – and the president keeps piling on straws.