It will be known, at least for now, as the Rocket Man speech, but it was more than that.
In his first address to the United Nations, Donald Trump delivered a solid and necessary defense of the importance of national sovereignty, defended an American-centered world order, and spoke forthrightly about threats to international peace and security emanating from North Korea and other rogue states.
Trump laid out the essentials of his emerging foreign policy. The foundation of a healthy international order is a “coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world.” Trump specifically rejected the notion that nations must conform to the same political or cultural ideals, but he did not simply fall back on an international relativism. Trump declared, “We do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
He underlined those standards when blasting the world’s bad actors. His best line was directed at Venezuela. Offering a moment of clarity to a world that often acts puzzled as to why a once-prosperous nation is sinking into poverty and chaos, Trump said, “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” That’s exactly right, and it’s a sad testament to socialism’s enduring ideological appeal that what should have been an applause line was met with stony silence.
Regarding North Korea, Trump was his usual bellicose self — even working in his new pet insult for Kim Jong-un, calling him “Rocket Man” “on a suicide mission.” That line is already burning up the Internet, but a nickname doesn’t constitute a policy. Yes, the president memorably pledged to “totally destroy” North Korea if the U.S. “is forced to defend itself or its allies.” Yet massive retaliation and regime change in the event of a renewed Korean War has been American policy for decades.
It is still not clear what Trump’s North Korean strategy is, nor is it clear if Trump will meaningfully shift American policies regarding Iran. He declared the nuclear deal an “embarrassment.” It’s clear that he wants to opt out of the deal, but he hasn’t thus far, and it’s far from certain that he will in the future. Clearly (and rightly) Trump is frustrated with both regimes and the diplomatic status quo. But forging something different is much easier said than done; both nations have consistently and successfully defied his predecessors.
Trump ended his address with an ode to patriotism, noting that a desire for a free nation has inspired some of history’s most admirable fights: “Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.” In a rebuke to those who imagine a body like the U.N. eventually growing into a global government, Trump argued that the world is best served when nations “defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens.”
Indeed, earlier in the speech, he referred to the post–World War II Marshall Plan as being “built on the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent, and free.” Yes, the rebuilding of our allies (and the remaking of our former foes) did result in prosperous, independent nations, but America’s post-war strategy put a heavy emphasis on the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, and markets — not just because these things are conducive to human thriving, but because it is in our cold-eyed interest to see them spread around the world.
Trump’s speech was a bit of a shotgun marriage between conventional Republican foreign-policy thinking — with Trump accepting America’s international role, despite his complaints about the costs — and a few of his signature nationalist themes. He wants to avoid the vaulting idealism of George W. Bush in favor of a more modest vision, and yet Bush could have made the same critiques of the rogue nations in largely the same terms.
Trump’s foreign policy is a work in progress. So far he has steered clear of the follies that seemed possible during the campaign — turning his back on NATO, for instance — and, in fact, hasn’t plowed much new ground. With the exception of the welcome pullout from the Paris accords, the president has accepted the status quo. In North Korea and Iran, that means failure. Trump has put the world unmistakably on notice that he’s unhappy with this state of affairs. Now, he and his team need concrete strategies that better serves our interests — as a sovereign nation and a world leader.