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Donald Trump's speech at the UN betrayed the depth of his ignorance about foreign policy

The president's new approach isn't just lacking in compassion; it's lacking in any common sense

Holly Baxter
Wednesday 26 September 2018 05:04 BST
Donald Trump says US wants UN to ‘respect its sovereignty’

What does it mean to only give foreign aid to “friends”, as Donald Trump just said in his speech to the UN? It’s not the first time the leader of a developed country has discussed the subject, or protested that that’s the way things should be done – but it does have a distinctly un-American feel about it. After all, most of us grew up hearing that the US was the “policeman of the world”; this approach is distinctly more “giver of sweeties” than “defender of justice”.

Most worryingly, in saying that the US would only give money “to people who respect us, who frankly are our friends”, Trump betrayed the paucity of his understanding of how foreign aid is supposed to work.

Take the UK’s current pattern of spending. Out of the top five recipients of the £13.4bn we give per year, three are Pakistan, Syria and Afghanistan. These are countries which partly rely on aid because of the UK’s actions: drone strikes in all of these regions have created pockets of political instability (it’s the CIA who has led drone strikes in Pakistan in the past, and the UK’s Ministry of Defence refused to say whether UK personnel were involved, but let’s pretend for one crazy second here that we probably were). Whether or not you believe the ends justify the means, suffice to say drone strikes rarely increase government support in any region – and are often used as propaganda tools by groups like Isis to “prove” their narrative (the West wants Muslims dead, doesn’t care for civilians or soldiers, sees children in mountain villages as “collateral damage” in their war against terrorism, and so on.)

In other words, foreign aid is far more political than giving out sweeties to people who are nice to us. It is a savvy political decision as much as an exercise in compassion. It serves to strengthen governments which our actions might have inadvertently weakened, and it serves to improve the lives of people who would flee their countries if they crumbled under the pressure of our own questionable foreign policy decisions (see: the refugee crisis since 2015).

An excellent example of this is Switzerland’s investment in an area of Tunisia earlier this year. The Swiss government spent $4m recently helping to market the striking landscapes where Star Wars and The English Patient were filmed to European tourists. The initial aim is to turn the region of Dahar into a prosperous and popular holiday destination, with all the jobs and opportunities which top vacation spots usually enjoy; the ultimate aim is to stop Tunisian people – and those from surrounding countries such as Libya – making the treacherous journey to Europe. Because if you really want to lower immigration, you have to build up the countries which people are leaving. And you won’t do that by sticking a bright red Make America Great Again cap on your head and building a bigger wall round the border.

Right-wingers often baulk at the concept of foreign aid because they see it as some sort of colonial apology, a tacit admission that their country has done wrong in the past and now has to right it financially (these are usually the same people who get all misty-eyed about the Empire, unsurprisingly). If you take your patriotism too seriously, you can fall into the trap of taking your foreign aid strategy too personally – but the truth is that it’s often those awful bleeding-heart lefties who take a more pragmatic approach to aid costs. Step away from defending the actions of the Empire and you’re still left with an economically imbalanced world. It is in all of our interests – morally, financially, reputationally – to rectify that in the here and now, whatever your views about what came before.

In this context, it’s ironic that Trump used some of his earlier time at the UN to pull out of the UN global compact on migration, which was a plan unanimously adopted by UN members in 2016 to ensure orderly and compassionate refugee and immigration policies across the world. Other equal ironies during his speech involved boasting about his success in stopping “the bloodthirsty killers of Isis” and claiming that the UN human rights council “[shields] human rights abusers”. By giving more in foreign aid – and not restricting it to “friends” – Trump could have started solving the “problem” of high immigration and indeed the problem of providing fertile ground for Isis himself. Now he has metaphorically stuck his fingers in his ears, the effort will be that much harder.

One of the only high points of Donald Trump’s leadership was his summit with Kim Jong-un. Finally, it seemed, North Korea was going to allow the world in; perhaps Kim was only waiting for an opportunity to be taken seriously. The fact that the summit went ahead remains extraordinary. It showed the benefits of reaching out beyond established “friends” in an effort to make the world a better place. Defenders of Trump pointed to this as proof that his diplomatic efforts were more subtle and intelligent than most commentators gave him credit for; those on the other side called it accidental diplomacy achieved merely because a blundering baby came across another blundering baby on the world stage. After hearing what he had to say this week to the United Nations, it’s hard not to think that the latter was more likely.

Despite having abandoned the global compact on migration, ended funding for Palestinian refugees and stamped his feet about how much the US gives to the UN in comparison to other countries, The Donald managed to end his speech on what he at least must have considered a positive note. Referring to the UN as a “beautiful constellation of nations” which succeeds in diversity and cooperation, he stated that “the passion that burns in the hearts of patriots and the souls of nations has informed reform and revolution. To unleash this incredible potential in our people, we must defend the foundations that made it possible.”

Fires, foundations, constellations, burning hearts and souls – it all felt a bit more like a vision of hellfire or the apocalypse than the US forging progressive new partnerships across the globe. But then again, I suppose, the same could be said for Trump’s entire presidency.

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