But, as often happens, critics focused on Trump’s rhetoric and unconventional style rather than the substance of the speech. Reading the speech, it is in many ways simply a robust and muscular presentation of U.S. foreign policy as practiced and explained by various administrations in the post-World War II era.
Let’s look at the specifics.
Early on in the speech, the president praised the founding principles of the U.N. and past efforts such as the Marshall Plan to speed recovery from the devastation of war. He expressed support for efforts to lift people from poverty and realize their dreams. Pretty formulaic for U.S. presidents at the UN.
He rightly noted that the U.N. is mismanaged and that the U.S. bears a disproportionate burden of the costs of the U.N. “United Nations operations must not only be adequately funded but also fairly funded … [O]ur rate should be reduced to reflect the rise of other nations that can now bear more of the financial burden.” President Trump? No, that was President Clinton in 1993.
As virtually every previous U.S. president has done, Trump forthrightly outlined threats to the shared interests and values of peace-loving nations including terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, international criminal networks that traffic drugs, weapons and people.
He singled out countries representing threats to international peace and security. A particular focus was North Korea:
No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea… The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.
The “Rocket Man” reference is pure Trump — you either love or hate it.
But strong words for North Korea are not unique, not even at the U.N. Trump’s threat is clearly stated as a warning that the U.S. will respond to an attack with overwhelming force, which is a long-standing U.S. policy. It was simply a blunter version of President Obama’s warning in 2016 that the U.S. “could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals.”
In 2002, President Bush starkly informed the membership, “The purposes of the United States should not be doubted. The Security Council resolutions [on Iraq] will be enforced — the just demands of peace and security will be met — or action will be unavoidable.” How is this less bellicose than Trump’s speech?
The decision to condemn oppressive regimes as “the wicked few” and “evil” were seized upon by some as dark, but they are squarely in line with President Reagan’s condemnation of the “Evil Empire” and President Bush’s call to confront the “Axis of Evil.” We remember these phrases for a reason. When a President perceives a serious threat to the American people, he has an obligation to highlight that threat, which is best done in clear terms.
Trump’s criticism of the Iran deal alarmed many commentators. But even supporters of the deal admit it is imperfect. Obama’s “anytime, anywhere” inspections were a myth, and there is evidence of Iranian non-compliance in addition to its provocative actions in support of terrorism and ballistic missile launches in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions.
Trump is right to worry that the Iran deal is simply creating a future North Korea-type crisis. Even European leaders like French President Emmanuel Macron, who support the Iran deal, understand that “the Iran nuclear deal is no longer a sufficient safeguard against the growing power that Tehran wields in its region.” Credit Trump for confronting this threat now, rather than passing it on to his successors.
Could Trump have confronted China and Russian more directly? Yes, but he needs their support on North Korea. He did, however, put Russia and China on notice for their actions in Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Finally, a number of commentators were appalled at Trump’s emphasis on national sovereignty in his speech. This was no doubt jarring after eight years of President Obama genuflecting to the U.N. and downplaying U.S. sovereignty, but it is not a new turn in U.S. foreign affairs. It is a return to form.
The notion that the UN would “take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace” has always been more aspirational than operational. One has only to look at the wars, conflicts, and fundamental disagreements since the U.N. was founded to recognize that.
Collective action is possible, even preferable, but sovereign nations remain the foundation of international relations, not supranational organizations. To defend its national interests, the U.S. has been forced to take action outside the U.N. many times when the U.N. member states were unable or unwilling to address them collectively.
Most Western leaders choose not to highlight this and, instead, pay homage to the ideals of the U.N. rather than its reality when in Turtle Bay. But, Trump being Trump, he underscored that the U.N. is a tool of sovereign nations, not independent of them.
Some called Trump’s focus on sovereignty a gift to China, Russia, and other nations who often use sovereignty in their attempts to deflect criticism for their internal repressions, or concluded that his speech was inconsistent in its simultaneous insistence on national sovereignty and justification for U.S. actions outside its borders.
Was President Reagan giving a similar gift to the Soviet Union in his 1983 UN speech? “The United States, today as in the past, is a champion of freedom and self-determination for all people. We welcome diversity; we support the right of all nations to define and pursue their national goals. We respect their decisions and their sovereignty, asking only that they respect the decisions and sovereignty of others.”
The U.S. cannot prevent Chinese or Russian misuse and abuse of the term of sovereignty. It can only explain its view on what it means and why it is important.
Here Trump could have been more explicit.
Trump clearly linked sovereignty to the consent of the governed when he quoted the U.S. Constitution. He twice implied that sovereignty came with responsibilities, noting that the U.S. expects all nations to uphold “two core sovereign duties” of respecting the “interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
He later warned, “America stands with every person living under a brutal regime. Our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests, and their well-being, including their prosperity.”
In other words, threatening the safety and security of Americans is ample justification for intervention in the affairs of other nations as is taking prudent, reasonable steps to help people achieve the true sovereignty of representative government.
In sum, Trump’s speech was unique in style, but traditional in content. As noted by David Ignatius, “When you discount the rhetorical overkill, the most surprising thing about President Trump’s address to the United Nations on Tuesday was how conventional it was. He supported human rights and democracy; he opposed rogue regimes; he espoused a global community of strong, sovereign nations. Pretty shocking stuff.”
This piece originally appeared in The Hill on 9/25/17