19 September 2017   Leave a comment

US President Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations today.  In keeping with the character of his Presidency, the speech eschewed diplomatic language and was unusually blunt for a UN speech.  The speech was anchored in what was called “principled” realism.  He emphasized the centrality of sovereignty to his worldview, a point of view that is consistent with the language of “America first”.  But he was straightforward in condemning specific states for following policies that they believe are essential to the protection of their sovereignty (and territorial integrity).  For example, his criticism of North Korea’s nuclear program was apocalyptic:

“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself and its allies, it will have no choice but to destroy North Korea…Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime”.

The purpose of war is most emphatically not to “destroy” one’s opponent; the purpose of war is to coerce one’s opponent to change a course of action.  “Destroying” another country is rhetoric that is dangerous–if practiced, it is nothing other than genocide.  Moreover, referring to the leader of a country in derogatory terms is a deliberate attempt to goad one’s opponent into a confrontation.  Referring to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man” in a highly public forum personalizes the conflict.  Such disrespect begs a countermove and President Trump seems to want an excuse to use force against North Korea.  No leader should ever wish to use force.  The use of force is a confession of failure to resolve a dispute without violence.

Similarly, President Trump signaled his clear dissatisfaction with the nuclear agreement with Iran:

“We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program….” calling it “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into” and “an embarrassment to the United States.  And I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. Believe me.”

President Trump failed to mention that the agreement was one sanctioned by the very body he was speaking to:  the United Nations.  It was also an an agreement that the US voluntarily signed, fully exercising its sovereignty to agree or disagree with the agreement.  It is also an agreement that all parties involved agree has had Iran’s full compliance.  But the US undoubtedly has the sovereign right to leave the agreement.  What President Trump left unsaid was what would come after the US leaves the agreement and whether the other six signatory countries would continue to adhere to the agreement.  It is not enough to criticize the status quo; the purpose of criticism is to propose something better.  As of yet, we have no idea what that better agreement might be.

There was also a thread to the speech that was inconsistent with the venue.  President Trump emphasized the importance of nationalism in no uncertain terms:

“Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and take ownership of their futures?”

Again, this is rhetoric, but rhetoric that is at odds in an international body whose purpose is to maximize cooperation among nations.  Indeed, these words from the Preamble to the United Nations Charter were expressed to counter the excesses of nationalism that had led to World Wars I and II:

  • to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
  • to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
  • to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest, and
  • to employ international machinery for the promotion of the economic and social advancement of all peoples

We will have a much better sense of the impact of the speech after more time to reflect on the words.



Posted September 19, 2017 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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