Trump must change the way he sends messages to the world

Trump must change the way he sends messages to the world
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The best that can be said about President Trump’s speech to the United Nations this week is that it was a mirror image of far too many of his tweets and casual public comments. Like his tweets, and far too many of his other public statements, key portions belonged in his campaign rather than in a statement by a now-elected president and leader of the free world. The speech had too many extremes that discredited his message and raised unnecessary questions about his judgment and consistency. These mistakes fed opposition to his views and leadership in ways he needs to avoid in all of his communications, not simply a single speech.

There were many strong passages in his speech that the world did need to hear. The first 17 paragraphs have generally been ignored in the flood of media coverage and commentary that have followed, but they focused on real threats, the need for U.N. action, the value of precedents like the Marshall Plan, and the real-world responsibilities of sovereign states in ways that few experts on international relations are likely to object to. They clear articulated Trump’s commitment that the United States will continue to play a critical role in world leadership.

Then, however, the president shifted back to his tendency to speak to his core constituency, rather than act as America’s president and the leader of the free world. It was not the time or place to preface a speech whose main themes focused on collective action against aggression and threats to peace with statements like “your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first,” and “we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return. As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else.”

These words grossly exaggerated the burdens on the U.S. relative to the benefits, and the president should have been told that other countries have often used “sovereignty” in the U.N. to claim that human rights and authoritarian abuse are national issues other countries should not interfere in. The president unconsciously undermined every following aspect of his speech that focused on collective responsibility for global security, peace and development.

He then reverted to his all too common use of extreme language with words that undermine his credibility and raise serious questions about his judgement. He focused on an all too real threat from North Korea, an all too vicious dictatorship, but left no room for negotiation and compromise. Within moments, the media focus around the world was on his use of phrases like “rocket man,” and “totally destroy North Korea.”

Rather than make a case for stronger sanctions and negotiation, with preventive strikes as a possible option, he appeared to threaten all of North Korea’s people as much as its leader. His words made a stark and unnecessary contrast to his previous comment that “no one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing and oppression of countless more.”

He moved on to Iran in ways that were similarly extreme and categorical. He made no effort to offer Iran incentives to moderate, or to negotiate a change to the portions of the nuclear agreement that will end constraints on Iran’s future actions. He referred to Iran as a “corrupt dictatorship,” saying that “we cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilizing activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program. The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”

He then talked about meeting with “50 Arab and Muslim nations,” but used phrases like “Islamist extremism,” “radical Islamic terrorism” and “loser terrorists.” He made no effort to make it clear that such extremism or terrorism has nothing to do with the main body of Islam, and he used a term like “loser” in ways that again made his rhetoric seem half-formed and extreme. By this time, as the world media coverage that has followed his speech shows, he had lost his audience in terms of attention to most of his points. As a result, he went on to make important points that were almost totally ignored.

He talked about the need for U.N. reform, but then reverted to “America first” and focused on the cost to the U.S. and burden sharing, rather than the need for U.N. reforms his audience of different countries needed to hear. His closure was equally mixed. He suddenly injected an attack on the growing dictatorship in Venezuela, followed with rhetoric attacking international trade deals and closed with a paean to U.S. influence that came close to calling for revolutions against abusive regimes in other states.

To put it bluntly, someone in the White House needs to tell the president that the campaign is over, that his presidency is not a TV talk show, and that he will have to run for his next election on the basis of how seriously he is seen as a global leader and as a president of the entire country, not by appealing to his base in the last election. His word choice and lack of consistent focus and coherence in his U.N. speech is simply one more symptom of the problems that have emerged in far too many of his other speeches and constant stream of tweets since the election. He needs to start communicating in a truly presidential way. He needlessly discredits himself and shifts attention away from his real world goals. In simple terms, when you are president, the message does count at least as much as the medium.

Anthony H. Cordesman holds the Arleigh A. Burke chair in strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. He has served as a consultant on Afghanistan to the U.S. Department of Defense and the U.S. Department of State.