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Here Are the 3 Takeaways from Trump’s UN Speech

Sahar Khan

On Tuesday morning, President Donald Trump addressed the UN General Assembly for the
first time, unveiling his “American First” vision on
the world stage. His speech was marked with his trademark
bellicosity as he spoke about respecting sovereignty, destroying
North Korea, targeting Iran and criticizing Venezuela. While the
president did not reveal anything new about the U.S. stance on
various issues, the speech had three main takeaways that point to
an emerging Trumpian grand strategy that includes
buttressing homeland security and increasing the military
budget.

The first takeaway was recreating the Bush
administration’s “axis of evil” by targeting
North Korea and Iran’s varied nuclear ambitions. Referring to
Kim Jong-un as the “rocket man,” the president declared
the United States as “ready, willing and able” to
potentially attack North Korea, declaring the state’s pursuit
of nuclear weapons as “reckless” and a “suicide
mission.” He did look toward the UN, but not without his
known skepticism of the organization: “That’s what the
United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations
is for. Let’s see how they do.” Yet, the UN has been at
forefront of countering North Korea: fresh UN
sanctions
were placed on North Korea after it fired its latest
missile over Japan on August 15 following the joint U.S.-South
Korea military exercises.

The president then singled out the “murderous
regime” of Tehran and called the 2015 Iran Deal as “one
of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has
ever entered into” and “an embarrassment to the United
States.” But again, the Iran Deal has been successful in halting Iran’s nuclear
program. The president’s ambiguity on the Iran Deal now
has world leaders worried that if the United
States backs out and imposes sanctions, Iran might restart its
nuclear program.

The second takeaway from the president’s speech was a
familiar use of nationalist language and an emphasis on
sovereignty. Yet, as he called on world leaders to “fulfill
our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent,”
his actions at home have been doing the opposite. For example, a
month after taking office, he signed an
executive order
halting refugees from six Muslim countries,
affecting thousands of American families with Middle Eastern
roots
. Most recently, he moved to end the Deferred Action for Childhood
Arrivals (DACA) program that shielded illegal children from
deportation, again affecting thousands of American families and
businesses. Furthermore, by singling out North Korea, Iran, Cuba,
Syria and Venezuela, it is clear that not every state’s
sovereignty needs to be respected. Being so brazenly selective
about the sanctity of sovereignty can unnerve targeted nations and
incentivize destabilizing arms races. The president’s remarks
also seem to indicate his predilection for increasing military
spending to promote his “America First” strategy, which
is contrary to his desire to end nation building.

The final takeaway stems from the issues absent from his
remarks. The day before his speech, there was speculation that the
president would discuss how to reform the UN, a topic him and
Secretary-General António Guterres actually agree on. But he did not discuss any reforms.
Similarly, as he openly criticized socialism and communism, and its
devastating effects on Cuba, Venezuela, and the Soviet Union, he
did not mention China, a leading power that is politically
communist.

As the first opportunity to address the international community
as a leader, the president did what he did best: threaten force
without encouraging alliances and cooperation. Instead of taking
this opportunity to promote a grand strategy of great power
balancing
, the president instead opted for using the rhetoric
of realpolitik, stating that the United States
will be “guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Yet,
outcomes are almost always influenced by ideology. In other words,
the world heard what it expected to hear from President Trump: a
collection of contrary statements and a weak road map for world
peace.

Sahar Khan,
Ph.D. is a Visiting Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Cato
Institute.