Last week saw the 72nd session of the UN General Assembly where world leaders descended upon New York to give their customary speeches, condemn the wrongdoers, praise the well-behaved, strike up deals, and conduct ‘diplomacy.’
This was US President Donald J. Trump’s first-ever address to an audience this diverse and eminent, and as expected, the speech didn’t go down well with the Left.
New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, on Anderson Cooper 360, pummeled Trump’s speech saying that his version of foreign policy will undermine American’s position on the global totem pole and will undo the efforts of previous administrations who helped shape America’s current dominant position.
Sarah Snyder, Associate Professor at American University’s School of International Service, in conversation with The Atlantic’s Krishnadev Calamur, likened Trump’s speech to a ‘schoolyard debate.’ According to her, Trump’s application of the sovereignty principle is indicative of the US becoming lenient on human rights violations around the world, thus, giving comfort to rogue regimes and reckless nations.
William Saletan, in writing for The Slate, called Trump a ‘demagogue,’ ‘despot,’ ‘a populist thug,’ and ‘a war-crimes advocate.’ In Saletan’s eyes, Trump abandoned the pursuit of human rights and justice; his speech was a total ‘embarrassment.’ The article is nothing short of an indictment against President Trump.
Mrs. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 US Presidential candidate who hasn’t taken the defeat well, labeled the President’s speech ‘dark and dangerous.’ She averred that Trump should have taken the diplomatic route, suggesting a banal and ineffectual call to action.
Trump’s speech came under heavy fire in a New York Times article that accused Trump of having a very ‘selective’ reading of the principle of sovereignty.
One of the hosts on a popular Internet show – The Young Turks – called Trump’s address ‘unprecedented’; remarking that ‘sovereignty,’ a motif of the speech, ‘is another word for keeping immigrants out.’
MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell questioned the President’s mental stability, expounding that Trump, effectively, expressed his desire to commit a war-crime by threatening to wipe out North Korea. He surmised that the President doesn’t have any advisors who can help him think; and that Trump only exercises his intellectual faculty to give his adversaries nicknames. According to O’Donnell’s math, Trump’s speech was the worst speech delivered by the US, ranging from ‘vulgar to a muddy puddle of incoherence.’
My personal favorite was a piece in Chicago Tribune, which made for great late-night fictional reading. One of the propositions in this piece suggested that Trump’s employment of the word ‘sovereignty’ was a coded message to his alt-right, xenophobic, Breitbart-doting voter base that got him into office. David Rothkopf, the author of the article, concluded that Trump is a narcissistic caveman, a mob-boss without a baseball bat, whose actions will have a destabilizing effect on the world.
I vehemently disagree.
President Donald J. Trump’s UN speech exuded what he called ‘principled realism,’ a doctrine where noble ideals are reconciled with reality to draw up practical and feasible solutions to contemporary problems. This is a far cry from the worn-out and sedative pronouncements and speeches heard from the marble podium of the UN H.Q. in New York.
After his customary kickoff, in which he talked up his political accomplishments, Trump made a sharp turn to getting down to business, reminding the assembly of the thin line that divides prosperity from perdition. This was topped off with a dose of realistic optimism that the world will be chiseled out of the choices we make today.
Academic definitions aside, Trump outlined two requirements of ‘sovereignty’: a sovereign needs to keep its people’s interests above everything else, and that the sovereign shouldn’t infringe upon the interests of other such sovereigns.
With this in mind, he pressed on to hammer in the importance of ‘sovereignty’ as a requirement for UN members. This hangs well with the structure of the UN where diverse cultures come together to deliberate and resolve issues that are extraordinary in size, impact, and complexity.
Neither can all participating countries be expected to have similar principles and priorities nor can any resolution or consensus be expected without setting out a few ground rules, as Trump did. This acknowledgment of reality, while trying to hit the diplomatic goldilocks zone is the sort of pragmatism that is lacking in such supranational bodies.
Of note was Trump’s acceptance of differences amongst different nations’ political systems and his reluctance to use US foreign policy as a tool to tinker with them. Regardless of his previous vacillation over an intrusive and isolationist policy, his measured stance on the UN podium gave many dignitaries respite. Whether this leads to more confidence and compliance on the UN shop floor remains to be seen.
Overall, President Trump seemed to want to leave more wiggle room for differences so long as the goals are met and wanted to strike a balance between global outreach and duties to the citizenry. The latter was one of his campaign issues that won the hearts of millions and it was a relief to see him not backpedal out of it, even though, his actions will be the real litmus test.
While addressing international security concerns, Trump employed a good deal of tact.
Speaking in defense of sovereignty, the President alluded to China and Russia’s territorial pursuits, calling for respect for borders and urging diplomatic overtures. It served a great lesson in diplomacy to not publicly call out the offenders and avoid rocking the boat, when on-going bilateral talks seem to be buoyant.
Although many condemned President Trump in his nicknaming of Kim Jong Un, it was a fitting remark which sought to caricature the pot-bellied dictator and make light of him. But what got Trump the most vitriol was his remark about destroying North Korea, earning him labels like ‘war-crimes advocate.’
Whether Trump intends to wipe out all North Koreans or just the cruel hegemony remains unresolved in the minds of many. But a careful review of his speech reveals that he only named and excoriated the dictator and his regime. There was never any mention of the millions who languish and suffer under Rocketman’s oppressive governance. It, thus, seems far-fetched to surmise that Trump would want to decimate all North Koreans.
Our fears can be allayed, at least for now, as Trump assured that such an action would be the last resort.
Once again in a show of tact, he explicitly praised China and Russia for their sanctions on North Korea and invited other nations to follow suit. He seems to want to pursue a strategy of isolation and exhaustion of the regime with the eventual implosion of it.
This further buttresses the presumption that the tough talk was mere bravado, something that is second nature to Trump.
The President pursued a similar line on Iran – another unhinged regime that funds terrorism, gleefully wishes for the total extermination of Jews, and calls for death to America. Trump turned up the heat by reading out Iran’s indictment sheet, putting the nuclear deal back on the negotiating table, and praising neighboring Arab allies for their support against terrorism.
Trump’s speech took flak from some media pundits over his not calling out Saudi Arabia in the same breath as Iran and North Korea. We need to remind ourselves that Saudi Arabia is not a global destabilizer, doesn’t pose a nuclear threat, and hasn’t wished death upon America.
He did, however, briefly allude to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record while criticizing the UN’s bureaucratic and inefficient structure.
Regardless of his personal views on refugees, Arab/Muslim especially, he made an excellent argument against refugee resettlement in far-away countries and advocated for the provision of regional safe havens. This will go a long way in preempting the charge of Islamophobia, if the Trump administration were to reduce refugee admissions to a dribble.
Perhaps, the most joyful moment was his absolutely brilliant denunciation of socialism and communism, only second best to that of Reagan, who called the Soviet Union an ‘evil empire.’ This denunciation couldn’t have come at a better time, as too many millennials across North America seem to be fetishizing Socialism, Marxism, and Communism.
Trump also took a square shot at globalist ambitions and supranational arrangements, echoing the disillusionment of Americans with such high-sounding deals. But he balanced it with his measured support for global commerce, qualifying it with prioritizing the needs of American citizens. This perhaps is one of the best illustrations of principled realism.
On balance, it was a classic Trump-esque speech: forthright, patriotic, compliant with campaign promises, pragmatic, and garnished with some rhetoric.