U.S. President Donald Trump took to the podium today at the U.N. General Assembly in New York to deliver his first speech before the body of global leaders. The address — somewhat reminiscent in tone to his inauguration speech in January — was Trump's message to the world on what U.S. foreign policy should be under his doctrine of "America First." The first few months of Trump's presidency had been filled with whispers, rumors and gossip that Trump would radically alter the relationship of the United States with global institutions and its allies. There were even reports that executive orders had been drafted to freeze negotiations on multilateral treaties and cut U.S. funding for international organizations. But those orders never came to pass. The United States has remained, albeit at times reluctantly, true to its global commitments.
The debates in the United States over whether it should have an isolationist, passive or active foreign policy; whether it should work within a multilateral, bilateral or unilateral framework; and what it means to truly be "America First" have existed since the country's founding and will persist long after Trump leaves the Oval Office. But no matter who is president, the country's role in the global system necessitates that it play a pivotal part in the world's affairs. Trump's speech reflected that reality.
The centerpiece of Trump's remarks were scathing comments directed at North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un (who he dubbed "Rocket Man"), Syrian President Bashar al Assad and the Iranian government. Trump emphasized North Korea's global threat through its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and said that both Kim and his government were on a "suicide mission" and that the United States was willing to "totally destroy North Korea." The rhetoric was designed to justify the option of using military action in the future, but Trump was clear that it was the United Nations' job to ensure that such action is not needed, thanking the members of the U.N. Security Council, particularly China and Russia, for their role in supporting new sanctions against Pyongyang.
Trump also came out strongly against Iran. It was expected: The White House is undergoing a review of its overall policy toward Iran and the Iranian nuclear deal, which Trump called "an embarrassment to the United States." He also described Iran as "an economically depleted rogue state" and said it pursued "death and destruction." In doing so, Trump made it clear that even though he might decide that it’s in the United States' best interests to keep the nuclear deal in place (the U.S. State Department will certify that decision in October), a stronger regional policy against Iran is coming. Likewise, Trump criticized the "criminal regime" of Syria's al Assad while justifying the U.S. missile strike in April against a base used to deploy chemical weapons against civilians. Trump praised a number of Middle Eastern powers as well, chief among them Saudi Arabia, for their efforts against "radical Islamic terror." Jordan, Turkey and Lebanon were also singled out for their roles in supporting and hosting Syrian refugees.
Closer to home, Trump criticized Cuba and Venezuela. He said that the United States won’t lift sanctions until there is "fundamental reform" in Cuba and that the United States is willing to impose additional sanctions on Venezuela because of the pain and suffering President Nicolas Maduro has inflicted on the Venezuelan people.
Trump's image as a nationalist pervaded throughout the speech. While justifying the United States' own turn toward nationalism, Trump emphasized that the success of the United Nations depended on the "independent strength of its members," a refrain that he borrowed from U.S. President Harry Truman and used to bookend his speech. Trump reiterated the U.S. commitment to renegotiating its global trade deals and that it would no longer accept what it considers to be one-sided deals.
Notably absent from the speech, however, were China and Russia. In one sentence, Trump said that "threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea" needed to be rejected, but fell short of directly rebuking either of the two countries. When Trump concluded on his signature economic platform — renegotiating trade deals — he didn’t mention China. Nor did he mention Russia's support for the Syrian government.
Undoubtedly, Trump would have liked to have approached many of these issues on a bilateral, transactional level during his first eight months in office. But the globalized world has quickly and consistently entangled other forces on any given issue. He would like to negotiate swiftly and strongly when dealing with China on trade and intellectual property-related issues, but China is a critical partner he must negotiate with when dealing with the North Korean crisis. And while he may want to pull out of the nuclear deal with Iran, backlash from his European allies would be swift, not to mention that it would send a message to Pyongyang that even a negotiated solution with the United States to freeze its nuclear program may not last indefinitely. He would then be dealing with not one, but two nuclear crises.
None of these entanglements are going to get easier. Trump's U.N. speech, despite its nationalistic tone, shined a light on the many challenges he’s facing. There's no doubt the White House wanted to focus on redefining the United States' role in the United Nations and the world at first. Geopolitics, however, has set the boundaries of that role. Trump is now trying to define his "America First" policy in that context.