United States president Donald Trump made his first appearance at the United Nations this week, delivering an address to the General Assembly on September 19th. It went about as well as most analysts expected. Trump’s first significant foray into policy was about North Korea, and he took the opportunity to make the abhorrent threat “to totally destroy” the country if the United States “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” If taken literally, that would of course be a war crime.
The second Trump target was Iran, and the world was treated to the bizarre spectacle of the U.S. president trashing a diplomatic agreement—the Iran nuclear deal—that was brokered in large part by the United States itself and remains in effect. But that inconsistency is not what was most problematic. Aside from the danger in and of itself of America abandoning the Iran deal, Trump’s rhetoric has implications for North Korea. In an article for The New York Times, David E. Sanger writes:
Presumably, the United States would have to make some concessions to North Korea in return for limits on its nuclear program. But why negotiate with the United States if this president or the next one can just throw out any agreement?
Taken on its own, Trump is correct in criticizing Iran for using its resources to “shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship” and “fuel Yemen’s civil war.” But with regard to Yemen, Trump reaches the depths of cynical hypocrisy by ignoring the devastating bloodshed and suffering caused by Saudi Arabia in that country. Slate’s Fred Kaplan emphasizes this discrepancy:
[Trump] said nothing about the similarly dreadful records of Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Turkey. In fact, he praised Saudi Arabia—where, he noted, he was “greatly honored” to speak earlier this year—for its agreement to stop “radical Islamic terrorism,” ignoring the Saudis’ longtime support for certain terrorist movements and the country’s cruel bombing of civilians in Yemen, with our own shameful abetting.
The following is Trump’s brief discussion of Syria and the crimes of the Assad regime:
We seek the de-escalation of the Syrian conflict, and a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. The actions of the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad, including the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens — even innocent children — shock the conscience of every decent person. No society can be safe if banned chemical weapons are allowed to spread. That is why the United States carried out a missile strike on the airbase that launched the attack.
Trump clearly condemned Assad and touted the U.S. missile strike this spring, but he indicated no plan going forward, such as the creation of a no-fly zone or further strikes on Syrian government air bases. In fact, he justified the spring missile strike as an attempt to stop the spread of chemical weapons. But by focusing on stopping the use of chemical weapons, Trump gives Assad leeway to kill by other means, such as devastating barrel bombs.
Missing from the speech entirely was condemnation of Myanmar’s ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims and any mention of climate change.
The address was not without overarching themes, but they were not particularly consistent with Trump’s actual policy positions. The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor looks at Trump’s selective support for the principle of sovereignty. Tharoor also unpacks Trump’s supposed “principled realism:”
The irony is that Trump’s international agenda is neither principled nor pragmatic, and has always been guided by ideology first. Both Trump and [adviser Stephen] Miller care chiefly about the narrow domestic base that catapulted Trump to power. So, in the most august chamber of international diplomacy, Trump stuck to his ultranationalist guns, extolling the “nation-state” as “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” while saying little about democracy, human rights and the rule of law elsewhere.
Trump’s defense of a strong nation-state at the world’s intergovernmental organization is telling. I think The Guardian’s editoral on Trump’s speech nails it:
An “America First” approach runs counter to the UN’s multilateralism. His credo could be summed up by his claim that nations acting in their own self-interest create a more stable world. The question is what rules would states operate under? Not the UN’s, Trump’s response appeared to suggest.
Comparing Trump’s speech with the address by UN secretary-general António Guterres is a study in contrast. Guterres’ remarks addressed seven key issues, including nuclear proliferation, climate change, and violations of humanitarian law. Perhaps most striking were his comments on immigration and refugees:
we will not end the tragedies on the Mediterranean, the Andaman Sea and elsewhere without creating more opportunities for regular migration. This will benefit migrants and countries alike.
I myself am a migrant, as are many of you in this room. But no one expected me to risk my life on a leaky boat or to cross a desert in the back of a truck to find employment outside my country of birth.
Safe migration cannot be limited to the global elite.
That last line won a lot of applause. Summarizing his position on immigration and migration, Guterres asserted, “we do not only face a refugee crisis; we also face a crisis of solidarity.”
That crisis of solidarity is the failure of nations to provide safe haven to people fleeing violence, as well as the rhetoric of politicians who blame immigrants for society’s ills. A good example of that rhetoric was a section of Trump’s address where he pits migrants against struggling native-born citizens:
For the receiving countries, the substantial costs of uncontrolled migration are borne overwhelmingly by low-income citizens whose concerns are often ignored by both media and government.
Trump’s zero-sum approach to both global politics and migration is challenged by global solidarity, a concept that represents the best impulses of the UN. Although I don’t wish to present Guterres’ speech as perfect, his “crisis of solidarity” concept is a useful lens to view many global crises. It can shed light on climate change as well as global inaction in the face of violence and humanitarian disasters.
It’s important to consider how this crisis of solidarity can be solved. How can international bonds be strengthened, not only between countries but also between peoples, many of whom are in conflict with their own governments and local power structures? Rather than a retreat to nationalism and strong nation-states, how can we move toward global cooperation and achieve not only peace but also justice? These are the complex open questions that will remain after the General Assembly concludes and all the heads of state head home.