As someone said on Twitter, never before has been there so much murmuring of “holy sh**” in so many different languages. Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations was a sometimes awkward marriage of conventional Republican foreign policy and a very basic version of Trump’s nationalism.
The headline obviously was the threat to destroy North Korea if we are forced to defend ourselves. If the point of the speech was to get the world to take notice, this surely succeeded. But it’s still an open question of what exactly the administration’s North Korea policy is — a rhetorically forceful version of the usual hope that we can get China to pressure North Korea and eventually sit down to negotiate again with Pyongyang, or something different?
Also, Trump called the Iran nuclear deal an embarrassment to our country, which is a pretty strong indication that he wants to get out of the agreement and probably will (even if this continues to be an internal battle in the administration).
It’s very safe to say that the reference to Kim Jong-un as “rocket man” aside (which will occasion twelve hours of intense cable debate), we’ve never heard such direct, undiplomatic language from a U.S. president at Turtle Bay.
In general, Trump defended the American-created and -defended world order, but he did it on his own terms. He emphasized the importance of sovereign nation-states and said we should accept their different cultures and interests. This is fine as far as it goes. In his version of post-war history, however, Trump gives short shrift to how important a vision of liberal democracy was to the United States. And there was a tension between his avowal to accept the ways of other nation-states and his (appropriately) excoriating attacks on the political and economic systems of North Korea, Iran, Syria, and Venezuela. Indeed, George W. Bush could have spoken in exactly the same terms about those rogue regimes, if with more elevated rhetoric.
All things considered and given the alternatives, it was a fine speech. It wasn’t really an “America First” speech — it defended the world order and even had warm words for the Marshall Plan — but in its signature lines about North Korea, it was thematically a very Jacksonian speech. What exactly this means in terms of policy remains to be seen. But everyone is paying attention, if they weren’t before.
— Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review.