I think I just watched a speech by a fictional president, a scene from some populist revival of The West Wing starring Donald Trump in the Martin Sheen role. In this episode, our hero went to the United Nations and finally gave those globalist technocrats a piece of the American mind. He called out our enemies. He delivered the kind of blunt talk that the U.N. never hears: a lesson on patriotism, a rejection of world government, and the best line about socialism ever spoken to a full gathering of the world’s foremost intergovernmental organization.
By the time Trump was finished, I half-expected to hear swelling music, followed by a focus group of “real Americans” yelling and pumping their fists. This was just what the United Nations needed to hear. This was just what our enemies needed to hear. Be afraid “Rocket Man.” Be very afraid.
Then, I flipped off the television and went back to real life, where the actual president of the United States is pursuing a foreign policy very, very much like the “globalist” presidents who came before him.
In just under nine months on the job, Donald Trump has re-certified the Iran deal, wrapped both his arms around Saudi Arabia, and pursued only a slightly more muscular version of the military offensive begun by Barack Obama in Iraq and Syria. He has provided enough troops to slightly improve conditions on the ground in Afghanistan if all goes well, but not nearly enough to turn the tide, so that our longest war is sure to continue apace. He’s reaffirmed his commitments to NATO. And he’s failed to initiate any real change in American relations with Russia and China.
Trump may have changed the tone of American policy, but he’s kept its substance largely the same.
“What about that change in tone?” you might respond. “Doesn’t stronger rhetoric have the potential to shake things up?”
Well, let’s ask “Rocket Man.”
In August, Trump declared that North Korea “best not make any more threats to the United States.” He said that the DPRK would “be met with fire, fury and frankly power the likes of which this world has never seen before” if it didn’t shape up.
Some Americans were terrified by these words, afraid that they would push an unstable ruler over the edge, provoking a (perhaps-nuclear) war. Others pumped their fists, exulting that there was a new sheriff in town to tell our enemies that we won’t be pushed around.
How did North Korea respond? It called Trump’s bluff. Since the fire-and-fury comment, North Korea has tested a hydrogen bomb and launched not one, but two missiles straight over the islands of Japan. Rocket Man is not intimidated, leaving president Trump stuck in the same rut as every other president since Eisenhower.
The Trump who gave the U.N. speech today sounded a bit like a grown-up version of the Trump on the campaign trail.
The Trump who gave the U.N. speech today sounded a bit like a grown-up version of the Trump on the campaign trail. The Trump in the Oval Office is the president of the status quo. He’s a man of the establishment.
To be sure, this is not all bad. Some of it, considering what could have happened, is quite good. By reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO and maintaining sanctions against Russia, he backtracked on two of his most reckless rhetorical flirtations from the campaign. He’s conducting military operations in accordance with the laws of war, which it wasn’t always clear he would. And he’s refusing to risk retreat in Afghanistan.
In short, he’s avoided the worst implications of “America First.” But, excepting his largely symbolic withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, he’s also avoided the best implications of “America First.” There are changes that should be made. He can and must take the risk of withdrawing from the Iran deal. He should reconsider America’s embrace of Saudi Arabia, and he must carefully consider whether American foreign policy needs a course correction in the Korean Peninsula.
So, how should you think of Trump at the U.N., then? The short answer is that you shouldn’t think much of it at all. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from this president, it’s that his speeches matter less than those of his peers. His promises aren’t worth the pixels they’re printed on; even his most stirring declaration might be undermined by his very next tweet.
Trump scored some rhetorical points today, but actions speak louder than words — and in his case, actions often bear no relation to words. So let’s obsess less over what our president says and pay closer attention to what he does. Key decisions await, Rocket Man watches, and we don’t yet know what Trump will do. There is much to like in today’s speech, but until he truly changes course, “principled realism” will be just another euphemism for the status quo.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, an attorney, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.