Terry H. Schwadron
Sept. 26, 2018
To no one’s surprise, President Trump yesterday served up a serious, wide-ranging, if sometimes wandering dose of “America First” thinking to the United Nations’ general assembly. There was no mistaking his rejection of globalism, even global responsibility for issues like refugees, unless the specifics would serve America’s interest.
Along the way, Trump skewered China, Iran, Cuba, Palestine, Germany, Venezuela and others who, in pursuit of their own versions of their national sovereignty — Trump’s dominant theme — might have acted in ways that do not put American interests first.
Indeed, the U.S. president warned that whether the issue involves trade or security, Trump’s America will be offering foreign aid only when it serves the needs of the United States, and that the UN itself should be reforming its ways before U.S. aid is cut further.
Here’s the good news: The president was strong, on point, mostly clear before becoming occasionally incoherent, and totally serious about the positioning of America in the time of Trump in the world, and about having made progress on some important world crises, like North Korea.
The ever-present bad news, of course, is that this is a president who cannot heal divides at home, and certainly cannot do so in the world. His message of isolationism came from someone who is pretty isolated, and his remarks lacked heart and any sense of conciliation with and for others who cannot compete.
Of course, it seems easy for Trump to utter successes and harder to find measurable success in reality. Stepping back, we can see North Korea still holds its nuclear weapons, that Iran is holding back from nuclear development only because it is hanging onto European allies who did not withdraw from the treaty, that Syria is still leaking tens of thousands of refugees, moving the embassy in Israel to Jerusalem has only worsened the prospect of two-state solutions, that Russia and China are growing friskier in international arenas, challenging U.S. supremacy and on and on.
For other world leaders, White House aides told The Washington Post,“The president’s remarks were aimed, aides said, at elevating the theme of “American sovereignty.” That view did not necessarily have much support from the leaders from the U.N.’s 192 other countries, however. “In the first moments of the speech, Trump declared he had made more progress than ‘almost any other administration in the history of our country’ — prompting audible laughs in the cavernous U.N. chamber. A startled-looking Trump appeared thrown off-balance for a moment” before resuming his teleprompter remarks.”
The real audience may have been voters at home, pressing his point of American toughness. That toughness, he said, had won friendship with the North Korea leader, with whom he intends to meet again soon, and should warn foes like Iran to mend their bad regional, state-sponsored terrorism ways.
The speech set up an odd dichotomy. Our president could make demands of other nations, but somehow other nations are not supposed to make demands of us. Our president could see how others were pursuing their own sovereign ways, but those ways should work for U.S. interests.
The president rejected the idea of America participating in some UN efforts because they are not helping U.S. interests, but expects that others should do so. Stylistically, it seemed familiar to matching campaign rhetoric and bombastic announcements from the Oval Office with the reality of dealing with Congress, for example. It’s okay that Democrats put forth an ideology, but, it would be best if that ideology were the same as his own, for example.
Trump recounted cutting funds for UNESCO, the UN humanitarian arm, and restated opposition to supporting the International Criminal Court or the UN Refugee Migration effort. “We will not be governed by an international body that is unaccountable to our own citizens,” Trump said.
The idea of nations working together on common problems like Climate Change or housing for refugees don’t figure into any kind of must-do list for this president. Human rights are no longer an issue, just a nice-to-have, so long as the trade numbers are favorable or the support for a border wall in place.
The president previewed sanctions starting in November against Iran, defended tariffs, and indicated that the United States will act on its own where and when it feels a need to do so.
To me, the idea of floating a slogan like America First across the globe in place of a layered, structured approach to foreign policy seems inadequate and ineffective. But the president believes he is winning global success by doing so. It’s just a little hard to measure the achievements he claims with the reality on the ground.