President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday came down to one theme: It’s still America First.
The US president eschewed talk of global bodies and argued that independence and sovereignty should take precedence in front of world leaders at the annual gathering in New York City.
“That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance [and] control,” Trump said. “I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live, work, or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
Trump also seized the opportunity to reiterate his transactional view of alliances.
“We will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart,” Trump declared. “Moving forward, we will only give foreign aid to those who respect us and our friends.”
But the US president’s “what have you done for America lately?” mentality has lost some of its shock value a year later, even if the president continues to make these declarations before a body built on global partnerships. These world leaders have, by now, experienced and dealt with Trump on the world stage for more than a year; they are familiar at this point with his nationalistic foreign policy stance.
But just for good measure, Trump kept on reiterating it.
“America is governed by Americans,” Trump told the audience. “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the ideology of patriotism.”
Trump began the speech by bragging; he ended with a patriotic word salad
By way of introduction, Trump asserted that “in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
The audience responded with snorts of laughter. “I did not expect that reaction,” the president quipped, before plowing forward by listing his perceived successes with border security, the economy, and the military.
The awkward opening was a revealing moment. Trump had been trying to set a tone of American strength — and was met with skepticism.
The president went on to discuss his progress with North Korea toward “denuclearization.” His measured tone and talk of engagement toward Kim Jong Un was perhaps the clearest departure from his speech last fall, in which he called Kim “Little Rocket Man” and claimed he was on a “suicide mission.”
It turns out the Trump was saving all his ire for Iran. He sharply criticized the regime and defended his administration’s decision to impose sanctions, citing Middle Eastern allies. “[Iran does] not respect their neighbors, borders, or the sovereign rights of nations,” the president said. “Instead, they plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”
Trump also urged action in Venezuela over its humanitarian and economic crisis, and he announced new sanctions on leaders close to President Nicolas Maduro.
But mostly, the president used the speech to give a prolonged lecture on Trumpism, making it a staid version of his rallies. He complained about trade, immigration, and claimed that other countries weren’t being fair to the US. “The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer,” he asserted.
Trump praised new trade deals with South Korea and Mexico (but notably left out Canada, who’s still negotiating with the US over a revised NAFTA), and blasted China for its trade practices while defending his own recently-imposed tariffs.
The president defended the US’s decision to pull out of the UN Human Rights Council, in June and criticized the International Criminal Court. He rebuked the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries, saying they were “ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it.” He targeted Germany for being too dependent on Russian oil. He asked other world countries to pay more for their defense and contribute more to the United Nations.
Trump also emphasized the need for strong borders and implied that the solution to migration was helping people build better communities in their home countries so that they could “make their countries great again.”
Trump’s grievances eventually turned into a mishmash of platitudes about dreams, histories, “the passion that burns in the hearts of patriots,” and the “constellation of nations.”
“In each one, we see also promise of a people bound together by a shared past and working toward a common future,” he said. “As for Americans, we know what kind of future we want for ourselves. We know what kind of a nation America must always be. In America, we believe in the majesty of freedom and the dignity of the individual.”
But this apparent attempt to inspire rang hollow, considering what had proceeded it. Trump seemed to be arguing that the more each nation focused on themselves and their own interests, the more each could end up cooperating — but failed to explain how. Instead, he just threw out a bunch of florid phrases.
“We must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all,” Trump said. “When we do, we will find new avenues for cooperation unfolding before us. We will find new passion for peacemaking rising within us. We will find new purpose, new resolve, and new spirit flourishing all around us.”