Trump leaves 'little rocket man' barbs at home in stately UN speech

Trump leaves 'little rocket man' barbs at home in stately UN speech
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Donald Trump gave his second and much-anticipated speech before the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday to the usual response of not-so-muffled laughter, feigned shock and condescension from much of the American and English media.

Those Republican stalwarts who worried that the U.S. leader might not be up to his usual colorful rhetoric, as in last year’s U.N. address, can now relax. This year’s U.N. remarks didn’t hold anything comparable to the characterization of Kim Jong Un as “rocket man” as in his 2017 appearance.

In fact, President TrumpDonald John TrumpHarris bashes Kavanaugh's 'sham' nomination process, calls for his impeachment after sexual misconduct allegation Celebrating 'Hispanic Heritage Month' in the Age of Trump Let's not play Charlie Brown to Iran's Lucy MORE praised the North Korean leader for pledges to denuclearize his nation. In most respects, the statements from the Great Hall podium were vintage Trump, with more than a nod to internationalism.

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Presidents addressing the U.N. speak to their international listeners and, just as importantly, to their domestic audience. President Trump was no different in his approach. Touting his administration’s achievements and sketching a future agenda were both expected.

He and the Republican Party face a crucial midterm election in just weeks. The outcome will impact not just Donald Trump’s policies but also his chances of remaining in the White House.

If the Democrats capture the House of Representatives, they will likely initiate impeachment proceedings against the president for his alleged Russian collusion during the 2016 presidential election campaign or obstruction of justice for an off-hand plea of leniency for a former aide. So, attending to his political base is understandable.

The president’s aggressive New York City-style start to his speech — “My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” — did generate laughter among his U.N. listeners for the self-congratulations.

But he also got applause when he recovered by ad-libbing with a light touch: “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay.”

What is significant about the speech is not the lack of bon mots or razor-edged ridicule (i.e., "Crooked Hillary" or "Pocahontas" to hit Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonDershowitz: 'Too many politicians are being subject to criminal prosecution' The 13 Republicans needed to pass gun-control legislation Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE or Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenGun control: Campaigning vs. legislating Booker defends middle-ground health care approach: 'We're going to fight to get there' Democrats spar over electoral appeal of 'Medicare for All' MORE (D-Mass.), respectively); rather it was a clear but subdued statement of the White House’s worldview.

And with that outlook comes the salient point that the international landscape had changed. Trump grasped that fundamental change long before seeking the White House, while his opponents and presidential predecessors stayed on automatic pilot.

The ever-thoughtful Henry Kissinger astutely commented after the president’s July 2018 visit to Europe: “I think Trump may be one of those figures in history who appears from time to time to mark the end of an era and to force it to give up its old pretenses.”

Trump’s presidency has marked the end of the post-Cold War era. China’s astounding economic and military rise and Russia’s resurgence on the world stage ended America’s unipolar moment. 

America fell into the post-Cold War era almost by default with the collapse of its four-decade nemesis. Without the Soviet Union to confront them, American administrations were free to construct a liberal international order.

For this global society, American military power was tasked with upholding and spreading regional stability, peace, democracy, free trade, open borders and rules-based interactions.

Today, neither major political party is enthusiastic about defending allies abroad or promoting democracy with bayonets after wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The political right thinks international commitments hurt America’s domestic priorities and sacrifice the nation’s blood and treasure on unworthy foreigners. The left shares this view but also believes impure military interventions hurt innocents abroad and help only corporations.

Trump’s U.N. speech, along with other pronouncements, reflected his America-first vision. While trumpeting defense spending to soon make our military “more powerful than it has ever before,” the commander in chief championed America’s “independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination.”

In other words, America’s great power is not in the service of making the world safe for liberal internationalism. In classic Trump cadence, he drummed out: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” an utterance certain to upset the foreign policy establishment in the Boston-Washington corridor.

The president outlined “America’s policy of principled realism,’’ which he clarified as not being “held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies.” This holds “not only in matters of peace, but in matters of prosperity.”

He noted: “Trade must be fair and reciprocal.” He called attention to his “ground-breaking U.S.-Mexico trade agreement” and “completion of the brand new U.S.-Korea trade deal.”

In a departure from past presidential U.N. pitches about harmony in the Western Hemisphere, Trump invoked the Monroe Doctrine to “reject the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere.”

It was a clear reference, although unnamed, to Chinese economic and political penetration of Latin America —endeavors disconcerting to those uneasy with China’s global reach.  

Along with singling out Iran for its funding “havoc and slaughter in Syria and Yemen,” China came in for a Trumpian broadside. With a transparent allusion to China, Trump asserted that “countries were admitted to the World Trade Organization that violate every single principle on which the organization is based.”

Adopting “government-run industrial planning and state-owned enterprises,” these countries “engage in relentless product dumping, forced technology transfer and the theft of intellectual property.” Trump doesn’t mince words.

In the next paragraph, he identified the culprit: After China joined the WTO, “we have racked up $13 trillion in trade deficits over the last two decades.” Rather than being against free trade, as critics charge, he emphasized that “trade must be fair and reciprocal.” Then for good measure he added: “The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer.”

In sum, Trump’s appearance before the United Nations was marked with:

  • traditional themes about patriotism;
  • a defense of American interests;
  • attacks on communism and socialism (especially the Venezuelan brand);
  • defense of humanitarian values (by withdrawing from the fraudulent Human Rights Council); and
  • full-throated faith in America, its ideals and people.

But he concluded with his own form of internationalism. Uncharacteristically, he called for cooperation among nations and for embracing “sovereign and independent nations” as the “only vehicle where freedom has ever survived,” democracy endured, and “peace has ever prospered.”

He ended with “God bless the nations of the world.”

Thomas Henriksen is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution on the Stanford University. His most recent book is "Cycles in US Foreign Policy since the Cold War," (Palgrave, 2017).