BY SHASHI MALLA
Trump at the United Nations
At the start of his address to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) last week, US President Donald Trump thought perhaps that he addressing a joint session of the US Congress and delivering a ‘State of the Union’ speech. Because he immediately started enumerating that his short tenure had “accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” the usual type of exaggerated bragging he often makes at his campaign rallies to his hard-core supporters. Around the immense hall, diplomats and world leaders from more than 200 countries and delegations broke into what even the official White House transcript described as laughter.
Trump’s visit last year was quite different. He had delivered a volatile speech that had raised fears of nuclear war, but this time around most leaders viewed his self-tributes and gloomy omens in his second UN address as more show than substance. This was augmented by the fact that he even showed up 24 minutes late, forcing organizers to request the president of Ecuador to proceed with his own speech.
The packed hall sat silently as Trump enumerated his ‘major’ achievements in the international sphere. These included the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement, his refusal to sign a UN-backed accord for migration, the pullout from the UN Human Rights Council and the decision to move the US embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem. These were all one-sided decisions that most in the world body vehemently opposed. Consequently, at the end the ovation was respectful but muted.
As had been expected, Trump reserved his sharpest barbs for Iran, blaming the Islamic Republic for sowing “havoc and slaughter” in Syria and Yemen, and spreading “mayhem across the Middle East and in the wider world. He elaborated: “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction. . . . They do not respect their neighbors, their borders or the sovereign rights of nations.” He even exhorted other countries to apply economic pressure on Iran, a direct challenge to the four other permanent members of the Security Council (China, Russia, UK and France), as well as Germany and the European Union (the other signatories of the Iran deal) that remain committed to the Iran nuclear agreement that
Trump renounced this May. He further said: “We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues.”
Trump’s administration re-imposed sanctions last month targeting Iran’s purchase of US dollars, trade in gold and its automobile sector. This coming November, potentially more damaging sanctions will come into effect on Iran’s oil and shipping sectors and its central bank.
However Trump took much time of his 35-minute speech to forward his favorite “America First” agenda and its emphasis on national sovereignty in trade, security and international relations: “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism” [!] He also pushed the argument for his undisciplined approach to foreign policy, from the Middle East to North Korea, where he has disrupted traditional diplomacy by abandoning long-standing US policies. He claimed: “America’s policy of principled realism means that we will not be held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong over the years, time and time again.”
Thus, his justification for the rejection of the newly negotiated global agreement on migration facilitated by the UN itself: “Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens. . . . Ultimately, the only long-term solution to the migration crisis is to help people build more hopeful futures in their home countries. Make their countries great again.” Trump has no sense of history and forgets that many countries face economic and political problems today because of the past policies of Western countries. Plus, many countries are not at fault because climate change as a result of man-made extremely deficient ecological policies in the world, by far (mainly in India, China and the US) have had horrendous effects on their respective environments. But Trump and his administration deny the science of climate change [a hoax!].
The US President was also extremely critical of his own country’s foreign aid policy to date: “The United States is the world’s largest giver in the world, by far, of foreign aid. But few give anything to us.” The US would take a “hard look” at the State Department budget and ensure that countries receiving aid or military protection “also have our interests at heart.” Trump is promising to make foreign and military aid more ‘transactional’, i.e. on a quid pro quo basis and cost-benefit analysis, and will abandon traditional US attempts to use ‘soft power’ to promote human rights and democracy, especially in fragile societies.
For all to hear ‘the sound of silence’, Trump also critically displayed his Achilles heel. Despite his emphasis on sovereignty, Trump did not mention Russia’s various infringements on national sovereignty. The United Nations has censured Russia for its invasion of Ukraine and
its annexation of Crimea, as well as its actions in Georgia and the Balkans. The US intelligence agencies have credibly described the Kremlin’s interference in the 2016 presidential campaign. However, Trump – and together with him many Republican leaders and his political base – refuse to acknowledge this fact. He denigrates the official investigation into the irregularities (ordered by his own Justice Department) as “a witch hunt”.
The president praised North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un “for his courage” and praised the confidence-building measures both leaders and their governments have taken since their ‘historic’ June 12 summit in Singapore. However, successive endeavors to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and delivery systems have not succeeded. Trump said that US sanctions will stay in place “until denuclearization occurs”. Thus, there is a stalemate in the nuclear negotiations, pure and simple.
Trump attacked the “Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries” (OPEC), for “ripping in the region off the rest of the world” with high prices. At the same time, in a blatant contradiction, he applauded Saudi Arabia’s for what he called bold domestic reforms and its leadership in the region. Saudi Arabia is the largest supplier by far in OPEC and is also responsible for higher oil prices as US sanctions take effect in Iran’s oil production. It seems, he has no inkling of cause and effect.
Nicholas Burns, a former senior diplomat in Republican and Democratic administrations, was very clear in his assessment of Trump: “The tone of this speech won’t be effective outside Trump’s base at home – boastful, bitter and resentful of countries that ‘take advantage of us.’ “More to the point: “He is not leading the world, but campaigning against it.”
An already strained relationship between the US and China became even more rancorous last week amid a new spying allegation, a rapid escalation of a trade war and an accusation by Trump of election interference. The sharpening rhetoric were uttered by him as he chaired a meeting of the UN Security Council and played out as America’s unease about China’s global role mushrooms and the rising great power [and would-be ‘super-power’] becomes increasingly confident about projecting its power and image overseas. In his latest tirade against China, Trump accused Beijing of interfering in the ongoing campaign and the November US midterm elections because it does not want him to win [since he himself is not standing, he means his Republican Party] after his tough actions on trade.
Because of trade tariffs and other policy matters, the United States is in political turmoil. The latest is Trump’s nomination of Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court. This is now mired in allegations of drunken behavior and sexual misconduct [while he was in high school and college] following a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing. Therein, a California university professor of psychology, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, testified that Kavanaugh assaulted her while drunk [in the presence of a friend, likewise drunk] when the two were teenagers. Kavanaugh denies the charge, but acknowledged drinking beer [in limitation] as a youth [not revealing that he was underage]. Democrats have raised questions about his temperament and whether he was truthful about the extent of his alcohol use.
After a lot of posturing and dithering, Trump and the Republicans have agreed to a limited FBI investigation. According to the former FBI director James Comey ( in an opinion piece in ”The New York Times”, October2, 2018) , although this “comes in a time of almost indescribable pain and anger, lies and attacks”, the FBI can do this correctly, find the facts, and ‘ Speak Truth to Power’.
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