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Inappropriate Use of Language

Terry H. Schwadron

Sept. 20, 2017

Our self-described non-interventionist President Trump just stood before the nations of the world and threatened to totally destroy North Korea, undoubtedly managing to insult and provoke the North Korean leader by using the “Rocket Man” label.

There was no mistaking an intent at the UN: The President spoke clearly and relatively informally in a somewhat rambling speech that veered from attacks on selected foes and the need for the UN to come up with solutions that favor U.S. interests. His bellicose remarks might have been better for a domestic audience than one that is international diplomats.

After reminding all that each country should look at its own interests without impinging on the style and customs of others, he also clearly took bellicose swipes at leadership in Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. He laid down demands for international attention to end any funding or other support for terrorism, and he seemed to glibly “resolve” outstanding Syrian crises by calling for an end to war that recognizes the fanatically different views of its people, and the return of its refugees to a broken homeland.

Russia and China were hardly mentioned except for a thank you for weighing in with the U.S. on North Korea in the recent UN Security Council vote on more sanctions.

It was a scary, if not unexpected, speech.

It was all there, the America First stuff, the notion that the United States unapologetically cares primarily about itself, and the rest of the world ought to get with that program. He calls his doctrine “principled realism.” If you want U.S. help, put up, pay up or shut up. It was a rally speech from the campaign gussied up a bit and delivered to an audience that listed mostly silently, perhaps in fury if you were among the nations listed for a back-of-the-hand slap.

By contrast, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres opened the day with a speech about global climate change cooperation and the need for trust among 193 nation members. Guterres appealed for statesmanship to avoid war with North Korea and criticized world leaders who stoke resentment over refugees for political gain, two digs at President Trump. “This is the time for statesmanship,” said the former prime minister of Portugal. “We must not sleepwalk our way into war,” he said.

This was not the usual U.S. presidential address. There was no soothing, no oratorical inspiration, no persuasion. It was a challenge, flat out. Stand with us or get out of the way. Not exactly the stuff of diplomacy.

If the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” President Trump said, adding that North Korea “threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of life” as a result of its nuclear weapons program. . . If the righteous many don’t confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he said.

He challenged the UN to do the job rather than having the United States take it on alone. “That’s what the United Nations is all about. That’s what the United Nations is for,” he said. “Let’s see how they do. It is time for North Korea to realize that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future.”

As The Washington Post noted, in some moments Mr. Trump cast his presidency as an avatar of international renewal, built around his unique vision of global leadership. He described the world as weak and divided but suggested that a renewed patriotic spirit and love of country could cure most international ills.

In previewing the speech for reporters, one senior White House aide told the Post that it was “a deeply philosophical address” that would explain “how America fits into the world, how it operates, what its values are.” That description would not have passed in my college philosophy classes.

He then called the Iran nuclear agreement an “embarrassment” to the United States and threatened to cancel the agreement because Iran exports terrorism throughout the Middle East. In like fashion, he criticized the governments in Venezuela and Cuba. Our President warned warning that major portions of the world are “going to hell.”

According to Politico, analysts noted that Trump’s actions in office so far seem to both support and undercut the various points he made Tuesday. He may rail against human rights abuses in Iran, for instance, but he says nothing about similar abuses in U.S.-allied countries such as Egypt or Saudi Arabia — a position past presidents have also taken.

Diplomats reacted, well, diplomatically. Benjamin Netanyahy of Israel was ecstatic, others far less so. Most of the North Koreans walked out, leaving us to wonder whether the next response from Kim Jong-Un will be another missile rather than conciliatory statements.

Happy New Year.


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