Trump’s Successful U.N. Speech

National Review, September 19, 2017

Trump’s Successful U.N. Speech

by Elliott Abrams

It had both striking rhetoric and a sound argument. In his speech to the United Nations, President Trump very successfully met the political and intellectual challenge he faced. He reminded the delegates that the United Nations was never meant to be a gigantic bureaucracy that would steadily become a world government. Rather, he said, it is an association of sovereign states whose strength depends “on the independent strength of its members.” Its success, he argued, depends on their success at governing well as “strong, sovereign, and independent nations.”

Trump cleverly turned patriotism — love of one’s own country, and what he called the necessary basis for sacrifice and “all that is best in the human spirit” — into the basis for international cooperation to solve problems that nations must face together. “The true question,” he said, is “are we still patriots?” If we are, we can work together for “a future of dignity and peace for the people of this wonderful Earth.” This was a useful, principled, and accurate reminder that the nation-state (a term he used) remains the key to world politics, and that successful nation-states will be the key to addressing the world’s challenges.

The speech added to this line of thinking several Trumpian touches that must be applauded — and others that served at least to wake up his audience. He said, for example, that “the problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” That has to count as one of the nicest lines ever delivered in that General Assembly chamber. He noted that “major portions of the world are in conflict, and some in fact are going to hell.” One assumes he added the latter phrase to the written text — and it was pure Trump. He carefully distinguished between the vicious and corrupt regime in Iran, “whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos,” and “the good people of Iran,” adding that “Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most” after only “the vast military power of the United States.” On North Korea, he delivered the line that may be the most quoted: He said of Kim Jong-un that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission” and told the delegates that if Kim attacks the United States, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

What did Trump not talk about? The Israeli–Palestinian conflict. At times that problem was the central item in President Obama’s speeches to the U.N., so its absence in Trump’s first address to the General Assembly was very striking. He wants to get a deal done, as he reiterated when meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, but he realizes that the conflict is not central to world politics or even to stability and peace in the Middle East. So it had no place in this text.

Trump’s criticism of the United Nations was clear, hitting everything from the hypocrisy of allowing tyrannical regimes to serve as members of the Human Rights Council to its bloated bureaucracy, but every criticism was combined with a call for improvement and a pledge of cooperation. He held out the picture of a better U.N. able to confront and solve many of the world’s problems. 

Trump’s mantra in this speech was the goal of “security, prosperity, and peace,” which “strong, sovereign nations” could attain. His handling of freedom was less firm. The speech did contain that word, but terms like “liberty” and, more significantly, “human rights” were absent. Mostly he discussed the absence of freedom when he criticized rotten dictatorships, as in “the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom” and the American goal to help the people of Venezuela “regain their freedom.” Yet he did note the grand alliances that had “tilted the world toward freedom since World War II,” and in his peroration he said “we will fight together, sacrifice together, and stand together for peace, for freedom, for justice . . . ”

Fair judges will call this speech a real success. Trump rose to the occasion and offered a speech that had both striking rhetoric and a sound argument that the success of individual states, each looking out for its own interests, is the basic building block of a successful U.N. and international system. This was a rare speech in that chamber, which has been filled with decades of lies, hypocrisy, and globaloney. Trump paid the organization and the delegates the courtesy of telling them squarely how his administration sees the world.