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.
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.
Fair judges will call this speech a real success.
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.
— Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former Deputy National Security Advisor. His latest book is Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring.