One can understand why Israel's royal couple, Benjamin and Sarah Netanyahu, came to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday night to marvel at Donald Trump. His speech was like a dream come true for right-wing nationalists everywhere, including Israel. With the exception of the embarrassing fact that Trump refrained from expressing America's commitment to its best friend in the Middle East, as that Israel-basher Barack Hussein used to, the 45th president pressed all the right buttons, said all the required things and even used the kind of belligerent rhetoric that was once reserved for half-crazed despots from semi-developed countries. It was this speech that Netanyahu described as the sharpest and bravest he'd ever heard at the UN.
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In other world capitals, including Washington, people had to pinch themselves, as they often have throughout the passing Year of the Trump, to make sure that the surrealistic vision of pussy-grabbing Donald Trump isn't a nightmare or an acid trip gone wrong. Trump didn't resort to the kind of spontaneous off-the-cuff remarks that often gets him in trouble and distract from the message he wishes to convey, but in this case the written text should be harsh enough to spark fear and concern around the world. We should know, within days or weeks, whether Trump's dark warnings served to offset potential conflicts, or whether they were like pouring enormous amounts of high-octane fuel on a fire that was already burning out of control.
The main headline coming out of the speech was undoubtedly Trump's threat to "totally destroy" North Korea, words that responded to dictator Kim Jong Un in the apocalyptic tone he's used to. Trump once again resorted to personal insult by calling Kim "Rocket Man," though Pyongyang could very well respond with another Elton John song, "Madman Across the Water." According to the laws of war and judgments rendered by the International Court of Justice in The Hague, the threat of total annihilation is a war crime in and of itself. It will be welcomed in retrospect if it somehow succeeds in getting Kim to climb down from the ballistic missiles on which he is currently cruising towards confrontation. It will be seen as reckless and possibly cited in an indictment if it spurs Kim to further escalate his clash with Trump, as he's done in the past.
Netanyahu was certainly overjoyed to hear Trump's extraordinarily harsh assault on the Iran nuclear deal. Rhetorically, at least, Trump carried out a complete 180-degree turn on the previous administration's policies, trashing the nuclear deal as the worst ever concluded by the United States and seemingly burning the bridges with Tehran rather than trying to promote collaboration. After adopting Netanyahu's uncompromising attacks on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and then some, it's hard to see how the U.S. could not begin to withdraw from the agreement next month, when Trump is due to certify once again whether Tehran is complying with its obligations. He also seemed to be encouraging regime change, a position that won't necessarily endear him to the Iranian ayatollahs.
Militant hawks, including some of Trump's generals, believe that his new bellicose stance creates a win-win situation: Either it will deter Tehran, or the U.S. will knock its teeth in. Other observers, including many Europeans, will wonder if Trump realizes that reneging on the deal could distance Washington from its other international signatories who do not wish to see it revoked, and whether he is aware that he could soon find himself embroiled in two new military conflicts on both sides of Asia. You will recall that as part of his shameful pledge to keep America First – which he reiterated at the General Assembly on Tuesday – during the election campaign Trump promised that, unlike his predecessors, he would not get involved in costly foreign wars.
But the central theme that ran throughout Trump's speech was his unequivocal endorsement of sovereign states as the cornerstone of a new international coexistence. Much to Netanyahu's delight, Trump challenged international and supra-national institutions such as the United Nations, which Israel reviles. This approach not only constitutes a complete about-face from Obama's policies, but also a reversal of the longstanding international approach that was formulated after the kind of sovereign states that Trump lauded launched two world wars that left many millions dead.
The funny thing is that Trump extolled the virtues of "nation-states" even though it's not completely clear whether the United States, which is comprised of citizens without a common national heritage, actually qualifies as a nation-state. Perhaps Trump was referring only to white Americans like those who gave him their votes and for whom he continues to be a white knight in shining armor and after Tuesday's speech, perhaps even more so.