2017 Revisited: A look back through the eyes of TCW’s top writers.
First posted September 2017
It has been said that a diplomat is a gentleman sent abroad to lie for his country. By this definition Donald Trump is no diplomat. He stayed in his home city, went to the UN building and spoke the truth as he saw it.
The reaction was mixed. Hillary Clinton said: ‘I thought it was very dark, dangerous, not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering.’ According to the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins it was ‘dangerous’ and consisted of ‘testosterone tub-thumping and infantile imagery’. Elsewhere it was termed ‘bombastic’, ‘explosive’, and ‘ignorant hate speech’.
Some approved. Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel said, ‘In over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.’ John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN under President George W Bush, termed it ‘the best speech of the Trump presidency’.
The media naturally focused on Trump’s confrontational stance towards North Korea. Condemnation by the UN Security Council followed by increasing sanctions have failed to halt North Korea’s progress to fully functioning nuclear-armed ICBMs. Continuing to do something which has been consistently unsuccessful might be diplomatic, but is not sensible. Trump basically gave Kim Jong-un a stark warning: Don’t back us into a corner and force us to defend ourselves, because you won’t like the result.
Trump’s language, complete with ‘Rocket Man’ slurs, somewhat more forthright than that normal at the UN, makes good media. Chemi Shalev of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz even accused Trump of committing a war crime in threatening North Korea with annihilation if the rogue regime forces America to defend itself and its allies.
Trump can be more nuanced than is generally credited. The threat of destruction was not the only option tabled. He also called on the UN and the international community for greater international co-operation to thwart the nuclear ambitions of North Korea. This was a call for China, the nation with greatest influence over the rogue regime, to use that influence to prevent the situation from escalating. In more emollient style, Trump thanked both Russia and China by name ‘for joining the vote to impose sanctions’ against North Korea.
True to style, when necessary he pulled no punches, particularly with the totalitarian regimes in America’s backyard. Sanctions against ‘the corrupt, destabilising regime in Cuba’ will not be lifted until the Havana government makes fundamental reforms.
The Maduro regime in Venezuela was criticised for ‘imposing a failed ideology that has produced poverty and misery everywhere it has been tried’. Trump said: ‘The Venezuelan people are starving, and their country is collapsing. Their democratic institutions are being destroyed.’
He explained why Venezuela, with the world’s greatest oil reserves, is an economic and social basket case. ‘The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.’
Iran’s government, too, was criticised for its ideological neglect of its own citizens. It used Iran’s resources to ‘shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, fuel Yemen’s civil war’, and fund terror organisations such as Hezbollah instead of bettering the condition of its people. Trump took care to distinguish between Iran’s regime, ‘whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos’, and ‘the good people of Iran’, adding: ‘Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most’ after only ‘the vast military power of the United States’.
There was a promise resolutely to confront Islamic terrorism, calling on the international community to ‘expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups’.
Trump referred to the cost of ‘long-term uncontrolled migration’, which harms both sending and receiving countries. He sought ‘an approach to refugee resettlement that is designed to help these horribly treated people and which enables their eventual return to their home countries to be part of the rebuilding process’.
Trump did not hesitate to criticise the UN, which the United States funds disproportionately. He criticised the bloated organisation whose focus ‘has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process’. But every criticism was combined with a call for improvement and a pledge of co-operation. He held out the picture of a better UN able to confront and solve many of the world’s problems.
The most significant aspect of his speech, however, was his stress on the importance of the nation state. He reminded delegates that when the UN was formed, it was not intended to be a gigantic bureaucracy with aspirations to world government. The success of the UN rests on its member states succeeding in governing as ‘strong, sovereign, and independent nations’.
In the heart of supranational governance, Trump asserted, ‘the nation state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition’. Whilst stressing that he would always put America first, he added that ‘it’s in everyone’s interests to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure’.
His was a call to reject the transnationalism of the last century and to re-embrace a world of sovereign nation-states who cherish their independence and unique identities. ‘We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government.’ Instead he projected a vision where ‘diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just co-exist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect’.
The case was made that strong, sovereign nations, rather than international institutions, are key to unlocking a better future. ‘Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty, to promote security, prosperity, and peace, for themselves and for the world.’
The speech in its entirety was balanced, placing emphasis on the co-operation of sovereign states, and did not shirk where necessary from calling a spade a spade. Trump gave the UN the courtesy of being open and honest.