by Robert E. Hunter
For decades, the United Nations General Assembly has been treated to annual sermons by the president of the United States. Almost all the world’s nations—outside the old Communist bloc—saw these sermons as demonstrating America’s leadership and support for the international system it largely created and fostered. Not so with President Donald Trump. The world’s attention this year was on the extent to which the most powerful person in the world would try to isolate the United States even further than he has already done.
Most of Trump’s speech was received in silence, prior to polite and de rigueur applause at the end. The only real show of emotion came when, like almost all leaders appearing before the UNGA, Trump spoke to his domestic audience for political purposes: “My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” The response was laughter. To his credit, Trump laughed in return. The laughter was prompted by the word “accomplished.” But while Trump meant to convey the very real U.S. economic achievements of the past 20 months, others see his “accomplishment” as the most significant U.S. retreat from responsibilities in the outside world since the 1920s.
The historic reach-back should not be ignored. In his speech, Trump mentioned the 1823 Monroe Doctrine and called for rejecting “the interference of foreign nations in this hemisphere and in our own affairs.” That could have referred to Russian interference in U.S. elections (the only point in the speech he even alluded to Russia), but possibly also to growing Chinese investments in Latin America. But he was also echoing thoughts of two early presidents: both George Washington’s policy to “steer clear of foreign alliances with any portion of the foreign world” and Thomas Jefferson’s “honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.” One Trump slogan said it all: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” There can be merit in aspects of the former, as economic globalization has intensified divisions between haves and have-nots, both between and within countries, including the United States. But “patriotism” is a stand-in for America First, if not America Only.
Trump also recommended this approach to the rest of the world: “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered.” Yet this vision stands in direct opposition to the attitudes, practices, processes, and institutions built up since the Second World War that have, for much of the world, come closer to achieving Trump’s stated goals than any other system yet devised.
His view also is in contradistinction to another truth so obvious as to be cliché: in today’s world, the United States cannot call all the shots, indeed a diminishing number of them. The United States remains the world’s leading military power, but as Napoleon (or Talleyrand) said: “You can do anything with bayonets except sit on them.” Certainly, except where direct application of military power is involved, the US writ in the world cannot carry as far as it did only a few years ago. That is certainly true without solid alliances, the existence of which was entirely absent from Trump’s UNGA speech except when he said that “we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defenses.” This is a fair point, directed primarily at NATO allies. But the charge is valid only when the United States meets its own responsibilities within the alliances it created. In the case of the destructive impact of uncontrolled immigration from the Middle East into European Union countries, the United States remains unwilling to acknowledge or act upon the debts it incurred when it invaded Iraq in 2003. It dismantled what stability there was in the region and launched a flood of refugees that, especially in its pace, has posed the most serious threat in decades to comity all across Europe.
Trump’s Middle East Focus
Much of Trump’s UNGA speech was about the Middle East. He repeated his belief that he can resolve the dead-as-a-doornail Israeli-Palestinian peace process, while arguing that moving the US embassy to Jerusalem “advanced,” not “harmed,” peacemaking. He thus placed himself, with Israel, in a global community of only two countries. Further, he complimented Saudi Arabia for its role in reducing terrorism financing—false, by the State Department’s own admission—but in exchange he expects it to reduce the price of oil, which it has no interest in doing.
Trump also intensified his campaign against Iran. Notable, from the US perspective, is its hostility toward Israel. But for all its sins, Iran is not “the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism” that “fuels conflict…far beyond [the region]”—a charge he repeated the following day before the United National Security Council. That role belongs to Saudi Arabia through its Wahhabi-proselytizing citizens, but which the United States, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, has refused to hold to account. The slaughter in Yemen was not caused by Iran but mostly derives from decades-long Saudi ambitions. And by withdrawing last May from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), Trump attacked the principal means for forestalling any ambitions Iran might have in the future to acquire nuclear weapons. Ironically, the day before Trump spoke to the UN, all the other signatories to the JCPOA—France, Germany, the UK, the EU, Russia, China, and Iran—responded to Trump’s decision by agreeing on measures to try bypassing new US secondary sanctions. Even though in the end this agreement is unlikely to thwart the third-party impact of new sanctions on Iran that Trump is imposing November 5,this was a sharp rebuke to the U.S. president by countries that include America’s closest allies.
Trump might prove to be lucky: he might not provoke a war in the Persian Gulf, which week-by-week becomes increasingly likely. But he continues without a serious, coherent strategy in the Middle East, based on the interests of the United States rather than those of regional countries, notably Saudi Arabia and Israel. Trump has shown no awareness of the challenges the United States would face if there is war with Iran or even just the increasing regional turmoil that Trump and his key advisors are doing so much to promote. As his national security advisor, John Bolton, warned Iran this week, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens … there will indeed be hell to pay.” Of course, “hell” is what the United States and others have been paying for the invasion of Iraq at the behest of Bolton and others.
Trump’s Misunderstanding and Missed Opportunity
Obscured by these dramatic statements on the Middle East was the most important conclusion to be drawn from Trump’s UNGA speech. The president obviously does not understand that the United States is now so bound up with the outside world that it is already decades too late for it to disentangle itself without doing critical self-injury. This is not the era of Presidents Washington, Jefferson, or even Monroe. Nor does he understand that the evolution of post-Cold War economics, politics, and power means that the United States will inevitably face growing competition from other states, certainly China and to a lesser degree others, notably India and Russia. This has been clear since the end of the Cold War a quarter century ago and has grown apace in the absence of any replacement for the central organizing principle provided by East-West confrontation.
Never has Trump shown any awareness of these fundamental changes in global politics and economics. As a result, he has done nothing to deal with these changes and help build the kind of world in which U.S. interests can prosper. Instead, he hankers for a time that is dead, if it ever existed in the terms he regularly presents to the American people, a large percentage of whom are disoriented by change and would like to return to what they believe were the good old days.
To be fair to Trump, he and his supporters are not alone in bemoaning a lost time of American primacy. So much commentary by his opponents and the elites who have dominated the vision of America’s role in the world and the international system has not yet adjusted to the fact that, for the first time since the United States emerged permanently on the world stage at the time of Pearl Harbor, it must deal with competing powers that cannot be defeated either in hot war (World War II) or Cold War. Both liberals and conservatives have shared with Trump an unwillingness to think anew about the world and America’s future place in it. This needs to include not insisting on being “number one” in all relevant measures of power and influence and not simply wanting to continue the ways of the past, however useful they then were. . Rather it means understanding that the United States needs to use its continuing advantages to help shape a new system of international activity that, while protecting core American interests, also recognizes and deals, both intelligently and effectively, with the interests and ambitions asserted by others whose economic and military power is rising.
That debate has hardly begun. In a major missed opportunity, Trump’s speeches at the UN were just one reflection of the current tendency of the U.S. ruling and thinking classes to look backward rather than forward.