United Nations General Assembly speeches shouldn’t be taken too seriously most of the time. It isn’t usually where world leaders set out serious plans or policies.
General Assembly speeches are of a more aspirational nature. Take Barack Obama for example. Early on in his presidency, he told the delegates that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.” Nothing much came of that and in his last address to the UN, he didn’t even mention the Palestinian issue.
Donald Trump had a similarly unfounded aspiration in his speech last year. He warned that if the United States “is forced to defend ourselves or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” On Tuesday, he was back at the same podium and now he was lauding his new friend “Chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he has taken.” What a difference one year can make.
Last year Trump was met with stony silence, disturbed only by applause from Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli delegation. This year, the grandees of the international community took a different approach, greeting Trump’s opening remarks on his administration’s “extraordinary progress” with rolling laughter.
That was the wrong response. This speech was anything but a laughing matter. Last year’s speech may have provided more headlines, devoted as it was mainly to warning a long list of nations not to mess with Trump’s America.
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This year, Trump was less bombastic, more subdued, at times he seemed almost narcoleptic. But the speech, written for him apparently by his senior advisor for policy Stephen Miller, was the most massive fuck-you to the international order constructed in the seven decades since the Second World War ever delivered in an international forum. Or as Trump called it, in language lifted straight from conspiracy-theory websites, “global government.”
Trump didn’t present a program. Instead he rejected things. “We reject globalism and embrace patriotism,” he said, in a rallying call to populists, nativists and racial supremacists across the globe, exhorting nations to “resist threats to sovereignty.”
Tellingly, he singled out four countries for praise. India, where Narendra Modi has been boosting Hindu nationalism and eroding liberal democracy, he described as “a free society for over a billion people, successfully lifting people out of poverty and in to the middle class.” He praised the “bold reforms,” of Saudi Arabia’s “King Solomon (sic) and the Crown Prince,” which constitute allowing women to drive while arresting and executing critics of the absolute monarchy.
Poland, which this year passed Holocaust revisionism laws and dismantled its independent judiciary is “great people are standing up for their independence, their security and their sovereignty.” And then of course there is Israel which passed a racist nation-state law, “proudly celebrating its seventieth anniversary as a thriving democracy in the holy land.”
The General Assembly can laugh, but they are currently impotent, with Trumpism spreading. Poland is just one country in the European Union busy undermining Brussel’s consensus, from Orban’s Hungary to Brexit Britain and this year Salvini’s Italy, one of the EU’s founding nations, joined up. Meanwhile the guardians of Europe, Angela Merkel and Emanuel Macron are increasingly isolated on the continent and embattled at home.
The other signatories of the Iran deal met earlier in the day for a meeting in New York to try and work out a way to safeguard the agreement Trump pulled out of. The EU’s foreign minister Federica Mogherini even proposed a special bank that would circumvent the new American sanctions on Iran, but the facts on the ground are that dozens of European companies are faced with no choice but to stop doing business in Iran. And Trump’s Iran policy has brought Israel and the Saudis together like no Israel-Palestine peace plan ever did.
Abbas’s grey-faced frustration, as he listened to Trump boast of moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem said it all. “It’s principled realism,” said Trump, ridiculing the old diplomatic orthodoxies. “We will not be held hostage to dogmas, and experts who were proven wrong over the years time and time again.”
Because experts are wrong and every international forum, the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and the International Criminal Court are just schemes for gouging and disrespecting America.
What are the remaining leaders of liberal democracies to do? What allies do they have now that the president of the United States, who no one will ever call the leader of the free world, is championing nationalism? They can hardly team up with Iran, China and Venezuela, the nations Trump listed as America’s biggest enemies.
The German delegation laughed a second time during the speech, when Trump criticized their country for its reliance on Russian gas (the only time Trump mentioned Russia). But Chancellor Merkel wasn’t there. She was too busy trying to keep her coalition together at home. As Trump took to the UN podium, the members of her own CDU party were defying her on a key vote. Two years after her controversial decision to allow a million refugees to enter Germany, her standing has not recovered.
Trump (or more likely his speechwriter Miller) knew what he was doing when he hammered immigration which “finances criminal networks, and the flow of deadly drugs. It produces a vicious circle of crime and poverty.”
Instead of sheltering immigrants, he called for “upholding national borders” and “immigration policy according to [every nation’s] national interest.” How to stem the flow of refugees? “Make their countries great again” is the Trumpian answer. You can laugh.