Trump restrains fire-breathing in UN speech

Trump restrains fire-breathing in UN speech
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For all the hype, fear and loathing of Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpMeet the lawyer Democrats call when it's recount time Avenatti denies domestic violence allegations: 'I have never struck a woman' Trump names handbag designer as ambassador to South Africa MORE going head-to-head with the very embodiment of the “globalism” he disdains, Trump’s much-anticipated speech to the U.N. General Assembly, despite some rhetorical excesses and his distinct, if jarring, “America First” approach to the world, was not quite the disaster his critics expected.

Not surprisingly, there were more than a dozen references to “strong sovereign states” and respect for “sovereignty,” yet the word “multilateral” was carefully avoided. Nonetheless, Trump was surprisingly respectful of the U.N. as an institution.


Trump outlined his hopes that the U.N. could help avoid “the peril” of war and crises and realize "the promise” of peace and prosperity. His concerns about its bloated inefficiency were on a par with previous U.S. presidential addresses.


The fire-breathing verbiage that stole the headlines — that the U.S. might “have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” was actually nothing new. Trump’s threat was taken out of context. The media seemed to miss that it was preceded by a key qualifier: “if forced to defend itself or its allies.”

Though usually stated less bombastically and without insults like referring to the leader of North Korea as “Rocket Man,” U.S. presidents, from Clinton to Bush to Obama, have made it clear that if Pyongyang attacked the U.S., South Korea or Japan, it would trigger an overwhelming U.S.-South Korean military response, reunifying Korea by force. That is the basis of extended deterrence.

Trump sought to portray his “America First” worldview not as isolationist, but as the leader of a muscular America prepared to work with others to take on “rogue regimes,” terrorists and “growing dangers that threaten everything we cherish and value.”

I suspect he won few converts to his version of U.S. nationalism. After withdrawing from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris climate accord, threatening to kill NAFTA, the U.S.-South Korean free trade agreement and perhaps the Iran nuclear deal, Trump’s actions and threats have seriously eroded U.S. credibility.

To many, "America First" does not sound like a nation that plays well with others or engenders trust. Trump complained that the U.S. share of the U.N. budget was too large at 22 percent and called on others to do more. In some cases (e.g., China) he may have a point, but the U.S. share of global GDP is in the 20-22-percent range, so its budget share is roughly proportionate.

Trump was especially harsh on Iran, calling the nuclear deal “embarrassing,” implicitly hinting he may torpedo it. While many would agree with Trump’s depiction of Iran’s destabilizing behavior in the Middle East, the nuclear deal only had a singular purpose — halting Iran’s nuclear program.

Few would defend the deal’s imperfections, namely, that it expires in no more than 15 years and there is no automatic review or renewal. But neither Trump nor other critics have offered a better idea, and U.S. withdrawal would not be followed by the other deal partners — the U.K., France, Germany, Russia or China.

Similarly, few would argue with Trump’s portrayal of the dire situation in Venezuela, a corrupt dictatorship collapsing with millions suffering. But Trump said the situation is “completely unacceptable, and we cannot stand by and watch.” But beyond sanctions, which Latin American nations also support, few ideas for how to actually resolve it were forthcoming.   

Nor could Trump pass up the chance to indict “multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals and powerful international bureaucracies...” While the shortcomings of globalization have been duly noted, the Bretton Woods institutions — World Bank, IMF, and the World Trade Organization — have facilitated the enormous prosperity since 1945 that Trump heralded in his speech.

No one is disputing that nations should be sovereign. Trump has a point about U.N. overreach in recent years with ideas like “right to protect” that can rationalize military interventions.

But failure to understand that there are common interests — financial stability, nonproliferation, natural disasters, global refugee flows, environmental protection, terrorism and climate change — that are best addressed and managed by pooling sovereignty in mechanisms for multilateral (oops, the M-word) cooperation is a mistake that will come back to haunt ultra-nationalists of all stripes.

Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council and its Strategic Foresight Initiative. He served as a senior advisor to the assistant secretary of East Asia and the Pacific (1989-93), counselor to the undersecretary of State for global affairs from 2001 to 2004, as a member of the U.S. Department of State Policy Planning Staff from 2004 to 2008 and on the National Intelligence Council (NIC) Strategic Futures Group from 2008-2012. Follow him on Twitter: @RManning4