The Method to Trump’s Madness: His Speech at the U.N.

by Jim Talent

Donald Trump did well at the United Nations. His remarks in full are here; I’ll make some observations about the key points.

The speech was, to put it mildly, very direct, and the most direct portions bore clearly the Trump imprimatur. The president repeated his Twitter name for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un: “Rocket Man.” He said that some parts of the world were “going to hell.” He did not hesitate to refer to “radical Islamic terrorism.” He called out rogue regimes and castigated some of their leaders by name. He condemned the repression and aggression of North Korea and Iran, and added this memorable passage explaining why Venezuela is such a disaster:

The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or Communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.

Rich Lowry thought the speech called Andrew Jackson to mind. Perhaps it’s my Missouri bias, but I thought rather of Harry Truman. Trump quoted or referred to Truman twice, and the style of the speech was Trumanesque. I can’t think of any president in living memory besides Trump or Truman who would have delivered it, though Teddy Roosevelt would certainly have enjoyed telling some home truths to the U.N. if that body had been around 110 years ago.

In any case, bully for President Trump. The U.N. could use more plain speaking.

In a line that has drawn much attention, and was obviously designed to do so, Trump specifically threatened that “if the United States is forced to defend itself or its allies” against North Korea, it would “have no choice but to totally destroy” that country. That was an obvious reference to the potential use of America’s nuclear arsenal.

Normally, it’s better for presidents to maintain what experts call a policy of “strategic ambiguity” regarding the nuclear deterrent, which means making clear that, if attacked, the United States reserves all options without being specific about any particular one. In Trump’s defense, though, these are not normal times, North Korea is not a normal threat, and the experts have for 20 years made every mistake possible where North Korea is concerned.

President Trump is handling a huge problem on the Korean peninsula, and it’s not of his making. He has very few options. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on his approach.

Trump maintained a number of propositions that seem contradictory. He vigorously defended both national sovereignty and the idea of a norm-based international order. He stated that the United States does not “expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government” but also excoriated the rogue regimes for, among other things, their domestic repression. He discussed the Marshall Plan favorably but insisted, as he often does, that other countries should bear more of the burden for international peace and stability.

Rich saw a tension in all that, and understandably so. But after nine months of the Trump presidency, the explanation for the apparent contradictions is becoming clear. Trump sees the norm-based international order not as an end in itself but as a very high-order means by which the United States, and other democracies, defend their own safety and sovereign rights. That means he values the global system but is willing to accept or even create stress on it where necessary to protect important American interests. I tend to agree with Trump on that, and most of America’s presidents have, in practice if not in theory, had roughly the same priorities.

All in all, it was a good speech. But there was one point, near the beginning, where the president went wrong. He opened the body of the speech by claiming that “our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been.” That may be what the president wants for the armed forces, and it is certainly what he promised when he ran, but it is simply not true. In fact, the armed forces are in decline, and the decline cannot be reversed until the defense sequester is eliminated and the defense budget is raised, as Ronald Reagan raised it, by the equivalent of two double-digit increases in a row. If the president has any doubt on that score, he should pull Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis aside for a private conversation.

As of now, I see no sign whatsoever that Congress is moving to eliminate the sequester, or even that Congress understands how much is at stake. The president needs to make the defense issue a personal priority. Unless he does, all the plain speaking in the world, at the U.N. or elsewhere, will not protect the security or sovereignty of the United States.

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