President Trump made his debut at the United Nations on Tuesday, addressing the U.N. General Assembly at its annual opening. Afterward, media headlines and news coverage of the speech focused on Trump’s absurd (but admittedly amusing) new nickname for Kim Jong Un, “Rocket Man,” and his threat that the United States is willing to “totally destroy” North Korea to protect itself and its allies.
The mainstream media, liberal elites, and the international community have been doing a lot of handwringing about Trump’s rhetoric and his talk of going it alone. They also had a lot to say about his comments concerning the Iran nuclear deal, whose dissolution the president has long desired.
Although the focus was on Trump’s supposedly dangerous isolationism and nationalism, what’s really upsetting them is that he dared to say what no one is supposed to say: that the U.N. is broken and that it is unrealistic and dangerous to have a world without borders and without national sovereignty. In other words, Trump violated the Emperor Has No Clothes rule.
The Importance of Governments Serving Their People
One of the major themes of Trump’s U.N. speech was national sovereignty, both of the United States and of foreign countries: “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values. As president of the United States, I will always put America first. Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first.”
Although the international community gives lip service to the idea of national sovereignty and the U.N.’s role in defending it, this concept fundamentally conflicts with the liberal belief that the world should be progressing toward a kind of borderless global nationalism, in which no one country can claim superiority over another. That’s the real reason Trump was so roundly criticized for saying that he’s willing to go it alone on North Korea.
Trump also dared to praise America for its enduring legacy as a free democracy. His speech was devoid of the kind of America-bashing that President Obama was fond of, especially in front of international audiences. Instead, Trump asserted that the United States should “shine as an example for everyone to watch,” which indeed it should. He also praised the 230th anniversary of the U.S. Constitution as the “foundation of peace, prosperity, and freedom” for Americans and millions around the world who have embraced it as a model of good government.
No doubt, this kind of talk disturbs the American Left and international bureaucracies, both of which have grown comfortable with the idea that American exceptionalism is a myth based on an ugly and misguided sense of supremacy and pseudo-colonialism. This goes hand-in-hand with “nationalism” becoming a dirty word that can only be interpreted as a form of fascism. Thus it has become bigoted to desire defensible borders, whether here in the United States or in Europe, and the idea of loving one’s country is now a touchy and uncomfortable subject, something Trump specifically brought up at the end of his speech.
The international community has believed in a sort of fictional world since the end of World War II, in which national sovereignty was to be ceded in exchange for peace on earth. Except no one really defined whose peace. Neither did they consider that different countries have different ambitions, not to mention different values that are sometimes irreconcilable. There can never be a utopic one-world order because countries are made up of people, and people have ambition, vice, and self-interest. The best that any world order can do is contain these impulses; it can never eradicate them.
Since the U.N.’s founding in 1945, we’ve seen that China and Russia, as permanent members on the U.N. Security Council, have repeatedly and consistently vetoed efforts by the council to take action against rogue members or intervene effectively in genocidal conflicts (like the Syrian civil war). Everyone knows this, yet no one dares to say it for fear it will expose the U.N. for the failure that it is.
In light of these problems, Trump stated that he would work outside the U.N. if it became necessary, if the United States and its allies continue to be threatened by North Korea and the body doesn’t do more to prevent that. That makes sense. It’s absurd to defer to an international body that, with the exception of the first Gulf War, has never resolved a foreign conflict and is not now taking the necessary steps to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs.
Trump called out the rogue regimes represented at the U.N. and “have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them.” He pointed specifically to the countries that sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council that have terrible human rights records themselves, like Cuba and Saudi Arabia. He also criticized the U.N. for delays and stagnation in resolving conflicts as a result of “bureaucracy and process.”
Trump Also Condoned International Cooperation
Although his speech promoted American values and interests, and contained a healthy dose of criticism for the U.N., Trump’s speech wasn’t a total rejection of the U.N. or the international community.
Trump called for member states to work together to help protect the sovereignty of other nations, like Ukraine, and protect the international shipping lanes in the South China Sea. He praised the mission of the U.N., urging that we “must work together and confront together those who threatens us with chaos, turmoil, and terror,” and calling for “all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime.” He said that although the United States is ready to act unilaterally, he hoped that wouldn’t become necessary because he held out hope that the U.N. would step up and function as it was intended.
Rather than slamming the very existence of the U.N. or threatening to leave (as he has done with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization), Trump praised the founding of the international body, calling it a pillar of “peace, security, and prosperity.” He urged the U.N. to make a collective effort to improve, in the hope that one day it would more accountable and be able to effectively advocate for “human dignity and freedom around the world.” That doesn’t sound like the words of an isolationist to me.
Trump’s message was not a black and white case of promoting isolationism and denigrating internationalism. After all, he said plainly, “As long as I hold this office, I will defend America’s interests above all else, but in fulfilling our obligations to our nations, we also realize that it’s in everyone’s interests to seek the future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous, and secure.” He sees the need for both, or so it seems.
Despite Trump’s efforts to make a generous nod to the U.N., notwithstanding all the failings he pointed out, half the country (and much of the world) only heard what it wanted to hear—the speech of a dangerous isolationist who threatened to attack North Korea. That way, they don’t have to talk about the real meat of the speech, which shined a spotlight on the manifest and longstanding failures of the U.N.