Donald Trump’s speech before the UN General Assembly was typical Trump and all that we had feared. At the headquarters of an institution designed to “develop friendly relations among nations” and “to be a centre for harmonizing the actions of nations,” Trump’s 42 minute diatribe mentioned “sovereign” or “sovereignty” 21 times. America First obviously t(T)rumped any form of cooperation. As the Swiss President Doris Leuthard reminded the world’s leaders, “No country alone can confront future challenges. Nationalism and patriotism alone cannot contribute to that goal.”
Perhaps the most shocking of Trump’s declaration was his threat to “totally destroy North Korea.” If Adlai Stevenson was “prepared to wait for my answer until Hell freezes over," when confronting the Soviet Ambassador in the same United Nations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Trump sounded more than ready to go one-on-one with the “Rocket Man” in a World Wrestling showdown. (Trump is in the WWE Hall of Fame.)
As soon as Donald Trump had the requisite electoral votes on that fateful night in November 2016, a friend called me to share thoughts (commiserate?) on the surprising results. Several jokes were exchanged. Better to laugh than cry, we agreed. Among my comments was: “Can you imagine Donald Trump addressing the United Nations in New York?” I couldn’t imagine the real estate tycoon (reality-show buffoon?) speaking before the world’s leaders at the annual gathering of the heads of states. The ritual speeches are far from Trump’s hyped, Queens, finger-pointing hyperboles. How could the ultimate narcissistic wheeler-dealer address an eminent audience about serious issues of war and peace?
Well, Trump did win – I know I have to accept that – and he has addressed the UN General Assembly – I know I have to stop cringing. For someone brought up actively participating in the Model United Nations in high school, attentively following every word and gesture of Adlai Stevenson as U.S. representative, and later living in Geneva, the Rome of multilateralism, I try to recognize (acknowledge? put up with? suffer? tolerate? endure?) that Ambassador Nikki Haley is the official voice of the American government in New York and that President Donald Trump has access to the code and possibility to start a nuclear war.
While certainly not considered “the leader of the free world,” President Trump cannot be ignored, either by me or by heads of state. The United States is not a banana republic, not yet at least, and the elected leader of the world’s largest military/economic power has a primary place at any global forum. The world’s heads of state must also recognize (acknowledge? put up with? suffer? tolerate? endure?) that fact. President Trump’s addressing the United Nations is more than just a personal problem.
If President Trump is serious about “totally destroying North Korea,” it would be appropriate for him and members of his administration to read Henry Kissinger’s 1957 best seller “Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy,” which advocated limited nuclear war. They should also look at the reviews of the book and concept by experts who condemned the naiveté and danger of such a strategy. To “totally destroy North Korea” is a fallacy, but to threaten to do it before the UN General Assembly is obscene.
How are countries reacting to Trump’s America First withdrawal from global leadership? Europeans worry that they can no longer count on U.S. support in NATO and elsewhere. Check out the list of countries that have signed on to the Chinese proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a competition to the Bretton Woods U.S dominated institutions. There is more than one way of showing how rats leave a sinking ship.
As with all Trump activities, there was considerable speculation about what his performance on the world’s center stage would be like. In the New York meetings prior to the main speech, it was reported that Trump “offered a subdued and largely friendly performance on the opening day of his inaugural visit to the United Nations.” In the buildup to the speech before the General Assembly, it was said that Trump’s main message was that “he will seek to explain how his America First approach squares with a robust international body with the argument that nations that pursue their own interests can come together for common causes.” As The New York Times reported of the world leaders’ initial reaction: “Instead of a tiger, they got a tabby.”
They were wrong. Trump’s major speech was The Donald in all his fury. While he may have done well with his domestic base, he failed as a world leader. For the moment, unfortunately, we cannot say, “You’re fired.” The best we can hope for is to find a world-class tiger tamer.