Trumpian Rhetoric and U.S. Imperatives

President Trump speaks at the United Nations General Assembly, September 19, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Trump’s U.N. speech had a different tone from that of his predecessors, but it was not a radical departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy.

The language was shocking.

Who could have imagined the president of the United States calling another world leader “rocket man” or threatening “to totally destroy” a country from the podium of the General Assembly of the United Nations? Who could imagine a U.S. president lecturing the international elite about how they’ve been putting one over on the Americans with a “one-sided deal” for years and discussing the importance of nations’ not telling each other how to live? “America First” is, after all, a historical slogan that is more or less the opposite of the spirit that created the United Nations.

In other words, President Donald Trump’s debut speech at the U.N. was a shock to the international system.

But after everyone has reached for their smelling salts and huffed and puffed about how appalling and dangerous Trump’s rhetoric is for the ideals of the U.N. and the cause of world peace, perhaps it’s also time to realize that the contrast between him and his predecessors may not be as great as his detractors would like us to think.

After eight years of Barack Obama speaking in the same slot, it is shocking to hear a U.S. president praising individual nations’ sovereignty. Obama believed in multilateralism with a fervor that’s hard to imagine Donald Trump summoning up for any policy or idea. Nor would even George W. Bush have used the language Trump did toward North Korea and its dictator, Kim Jong-un.

Yet the notion that this was a revolutionary moment in American foreign policy — something that Trump and some of his aides, such as Stephen Miller, who reportedly wrote the speech, would actually like us to believe — is, at best, overblown. The tone of American foreign policy has changed, and there’s both good and bad in the language Trump used. But the substance looks to be remarkably similar to much of what came before him.

To be sure, on Iran, the Trump doctrine, if we can dignify it with such a term, is very different from that of Obama. Whether Trump is prepared to tear up the Iran nuclear deal within the next month, or if, as has been reported, the White House faction led by National Security Adviser General H. R. McMaster persuades him to seek to change it instead, there’s no doubt that Washington’s attitude toward Tehran is radically different from what it was a year ago. Trump correctly understands that the deal did not achieve the objective of ending the nuclear threat from Iran and has instead merely put it off for a few years while enriching and emboldening the Islamist regime.

Though Trump may sound different, the basic imperatives that have governed U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War do not appear to be fundamentally altered.

But here, as with Trump’s muscular tone toward North Korea and Venezuela, there is nothing very different in terms of substance from what we would have heard from Bush or, in some instances, from Obama, who used tough rhetoric about Syria before ultimately punting on doing anything about the Assad regime’s depredations.

Donald Trump is not the first U.S. president to warn the world that the U.S. would defend its interests against aggressive rogue regimes. And if he did so in blunt language, that approach wasn’t any more dangerous than his predecessors’ unsuccessful attempts to appease the North Koreans.

But leaving aside Trump’s threats, what really upset Trump’s critics was the implication that his “America First” beliefs mean an end to U.S. advocacy for democracy and human rights.

That conclusion is in line with Trump’s campaign rhetoric and perhaps even his inclinations. His discussion of the value of individual sovereignty was a signal of something that we already knew: There will be less preaching from this administration about democratic values and human rights.

But, in spite of that, it is worth pointing out that when Trump chose to attack rogue regimes, the rhetoric he used was largely that of human rights, whether he was talking about North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, or even Syria. The last of these was particularly significant, since Trump has always been wary of intervention against the Assad regime.

This illustrates something significant about American attitudes toward the world that appear to transcend even the stark contrast between Obama and Trump. When American presidents mention what they don’t like about foreign governments, they inevitably employ the rhetoric of human rights. Trump may say he doesn’t want to preach to the world, but how else you can you describe his language about rogue regimes?

Trump’s willingness to state openly that the U.S. has been played for a sucker by its international partners and bears too much of the burden of funding the U.N. is new, even if the sentiment is not.

It’s also true that Trump signaled he was ready to work with countries that may not reflect our values but do not impose their governing systems beyond their borders.

But while Trump’s style may lack the evangelical zeal of George W. Bush, that is a distinction without a difference, since every recent U.S. president has made exceptions for authoritarian governments it needed to work with. Though Trump may sound different, the basic imperatives that have governed U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War do not appear to be fundamentally altered. Moreover, after years in which the U.S. did not put its interests or that of its allies first — something that was very much on display in the negotiations that led to the pact with Iran — Trump’s tough talk was very much on point.

We have yet to see how the conflicts between more traditional foreign-policy thinkers, such as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, and the remaining unreconstructed “America First” advocates in the West Wing will play out. Nor is it clear how having a technocrat like Rex Tillerson with little apparent interest in big policy ideas will influence Trump’s decisions, even if we assume that he will not be replaced before long by Haley.

The world has never seen a president like Donald Trump before, and the impact of his abrasive style on the delicate sensibilities of the world body is not to be underestimated, especially since so many of the diplomats stationed in New York take their cues from the mainstream liberal press here.

But what we heard at the U.N. on Tuesday was a U.S. president who was prepared to defend U.S. interests with force and who used the language of human rights to bash America’s enemies. In terms of substance, that means a degree of continuity that ought to surprise both Trump’s supporters and his detractors.


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