Trump's speech to UN called 'terrifying' and 'delusional' by foreign policy experts

The President did not hold back on North Korea and Iran 

Mythili Sampathkumar
United Nations
Friday 12 January 2018 13:30 GMT
Trump: US will 'totally destroy' North Korea 'if forced to'

Donald Trump gave his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, pushing for “sovereignty” in what has been called both “terrifying” and “delusional” by experts.

The President, sticking to prepared remarks as he spoke in front of the signature green marble of the UN Headquarters in New York, spoke primarily on his “America First” doctrine, North Korea, and Iran.

His main message to member countries gathered also addressed his core base: “I will always put America first, just like you as the leaders of your countries will always - and should always - put your countries first.”

He said this emphasis of “sovereignty” was the basis for the international cooperation upon which the UN was founded and what made former President Woodrow Wilson and Truman's Marshall Plan - that aided reconstruction of Western Europe in the wake of World War II - a success.

Although all the experts The Independent spoke with agreed that it was a consistently Trump-esque speech - “it was more rhetorically repetitious than intellectually coherent” according to UN expert at the European Council of Foreign Relations Richard Gowan.

The words “sovereign” or “sovereignty” were mentioned at least 18 times in the nearly 40 minute speech as delivered.

Mr Gowan said the speech was more catered toward appeasing the President’s base of supporters who have stuck to Mr Trump’s repeated campaign and early term remarks that the UN is full of elitists and “just a good time “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time”.

TJ Pempel, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley, echoed that statement, adding that the speech was “good for headlines” but not much else in terms of reducing global threats.

Anjali Dayal, an international security professor at Fordham University, said the speech was "terrifying" since it was such a drastic break from past US presidents despite the fact that sovereignty is still a “cornerstone” of the UN.

Trump says many portions of the world are going to hell

She said the main difference is interpreting what respecting that sovereignty means.

I don't think it was a standard hawkish Republican foreign policy speech, even though much of what Trump said called back to the John Bolton era at the UN,” referring to the controversial US representative under George W. Bush’s administration.

Mr Trump spoke extensively on two particular countries: North Korea and Iran, calling them a “depraved regime” and a “murderous regime,” respectively.

Ms Dayal said: “it's hard to square the idea of sovereignty as non-interference with his language on North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela.”

After North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear weapons test recently, developed a hydrogen bomb, and fired test missiles over Hokkaido, Japan - the Security Council unanimously voted to place the strictest-ever sanctions on the hermit kingdom.

Today Mr Trump said that should Pyongyang not cease with developing its nuclear arsenal or attacks a US territory or ally the US would have “no choice but to destroy North Korea”.

He said, referring to the mercurial Kim Jong-un, that “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission”.

This is not much of a change in policy as Dr Stephen Saideman, an expert at Canada’s Carleton University, pointed out.

However, what worried Human Rights Watch’s UN Deputy Director Akshaya Kumar was that he said it at the UN.

War with North Korea would be an “incredibly disproportionate response to punish innocent civilians for the [North Korean regime’s] actions,” Ms Kumar told The Independent.

Neil Bhatiya, a researcher at the Center for a New American Security, told The Independent that Mr Trump’s rhetoric today ignored the “necessity of cooperating with Beijing on sanctions against Pyongyang”.

Mr Trump’s comments do not appear to take into the account the ripple effect of his apparently fatalistic view towards military action, according to Mr Pempel.

“The new sanctions authorities granted to the President have to potential to incur significant financial costs for China-based firms, which could have wider effects for the global economy if, for example, U.S. sanctions target certain large Chinese banks,” noted Mr Bhatiya.

Any implementation will have to be done in coordination with major players like China.

At the same time, Mr Pempel said this speech was “good for headlines” but not really serving the grander purpose of actually reducing a North Korea threat.

He argued that Mr Trump’s language does not do anything to help encourage more cooperation from Russia and China - who joined the world to vote in the Security Council for the strictest-ever sanctions on Pyongyang.

“This is the time for…encouraging China...and sending quiet messages to North Korea about a willingness to talk.”

Instead, Mr Pempel said the speech helped Japan, who worries that the US will abandon them and get “too close” to China but also puts ally South Korea in a “tough” position of wanting more dialogue along the lines of President Moon Jae-in’s “sunshine policy” and realising the real need for a militarised Seoul.

Despite what seems like a fatalistic attitude towards using military action to quell the threat of the isolated and mercurial North Korean leadership, Mr Pempel thinks Defence Secretary James Mattis had very little to do with the speech.

“He is usually reluctant to start with, and stay with, comments about military action. He keeps it quietly in the background but emphasizes diplomacy,” Mr Pempel said of the President’s trusted military adviser.

Trump says the US will "totally destroy" North Korea if necessary in UN speech

Mr Gowan argued that despite the threat of using American military might against Pyongyang, he appeared to still want to talk it through with China and Russia, as evidenced by US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley’s continued work.

The most “disturbing” part of Mr Trump’s speech for Mr Gowan was about Iran.

Mr Trump said that the Iran nuclear deal, signed in 2015 to redesign and reduce the country’s nuclear framework, was an “embarrassment” for the US.

Elizabeth Rosenberg, a Senior Fellow at the Center for New American Security, said that at the very least Mr Trump’s words on Iran were “consistent” because it “reinforced the impression that he plans to take action to undermine the deal.”

Ahead of the speech, a senior White House official said the goal was to separate the suffering of the Iranian people from the regime of Iran.

Mr Gowan said that “the idea that the Iranian people are going to rise up against their government because Trump gave a hectoring speech at the UN is delusional.”

Mr Trump “mixing the accusations towards the "murderous regime", its behaviour in the region, with what should be deemed a technical agreement the international community negotiated over more than 12 years” shows that this administration does not really separate the two, Dr Aniseh Bassiri Tabrizi, a Research Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies, told The Independent.

In Mr Trump also calling it "one of the worst" international pacts ever made, Ms Tabrizi said the administration undermines all the partners who worked on the deal during both the Bush and Obama administrations as well as “ignor[ing] the wishes of the Iranian people, who elected the current president twice because they believed a nuclear deal...was the best way to improve their living standards” since it lifted sanctions.

His rhetoric about the “rogue state” that has a “false guise of democracy” may be welcomed by his base, but ultimately does not aid in getting a better deal according to Ms Rosenberg.

It is “tremendously unhelpful with expanding arms controls of Iran” since there is less ally consensus on Iran’s non-nuclear activities.

Overall, several world leaders except for Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu who was full of praise, agreed with Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom who said to the BBC: "It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.”

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