President Trump gave his first official speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday morning, and was immediately berated by the New York Times (Trump’s “characteristically confrontational message”) and the Washington Post (“Trump’s menacing United Nations speech, annotated”). Sen. Dianne Feinstein lambasted him for words that “greatly escalated the danger” from Iran and North Korea. And the foreign minister of Venezuela’s socialist dictatorship, Jorge Arreaza — apparently trying to formulate some sort of supreme insult — compared Trump in 2017 to President Ronald Reagan in 1982.
With that kind of reaction, you might just start to suspect that Trump did something right.
Actually, Trump got it very right. In a forum accustomed to diplo-fictions and the dignifying of dictators, he hit a home run for America.
An important bit of context here is that while the procession of speeches at the UN General Assembly’s annual opening every September is officially dubbed the “General Debate,” it is not actually a debate. It is not as a rule a forum for to-and-fro, in which the fine points of policy are hashed out. As far as that happens, it goes on behind the scenes. The General Debate is a presentation of messages; a parade before the huge golden backdrop of the UN’s General Assembly chamber, in which for the better part of a week a series of senior envoys, ranging from heads of state to ministers, deliver remarks.
From many of the speakers, at a UN where the majority of the 193 member states are not free, it’s a performance rich in platitudes, prejudice and propaganda for consumption by captive populations back home — a polysyllabic porridge, in the UN tradition. What’s relatively rare is plain-spoken truth.
So, by UN standards, Trump’s speech certainly did not fit in. But by American standards, he told some extremely important truths, including his observation that “America does more than speak for the values expressed in the United Nations Charter. Our citizens have paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom and the freedom of many nations represented in this great hall.”
He spelled out, quite accurately, that “the scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based.”
In particular, and in detail, Trump called out the rogue states of North Korea and Iran. He did not follow a script of pollysyllabic diplomatic enumerations of unacceptable activities. He reminded the UN members of Pyongyang’s “deadly abuse” of American student Otto Warmbier. He talked about North Korea’s kidnapping of a Japanese 13-year-old girl “to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.” And he cited “the assassination of the dictator’s brother using banned nerve agents in an international airport.”
He caused a stir, and inspired plenty of headlines, with his comments:
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
That’s not bombast. That’s a pointed and useful warning to a totalitarian tyrant, who in contravention of nine UN sanctions resolutions and all basic decency has been threatening preemptive nuclear strikes on the U.S. and its allies, advertising the testing of hydrogen bombs and shooting intercontinental ballistic missiles over Japan. Let’s hope Kim Jong Un takes it seriously, despite decades of U.S. compromise and retreat that led to this pass.
As for the derision implicit in the label “Rocket Man,” I’d say that Trump in describing the murderous despot of North Korea displayed a distinct delicacy simply by avoiding the use of raw profanity from the UN podium. Would it have been better to deferentially describe Kim as the supreme leader of North Korea? Mockery has its uses in facing down despots. The confrontation here is of North Korea’s making — and the dangers have grown all the worse over the years for such nonconfrontational approaches as the nuclear deals of Presidents Bush and Clinton, and the do-nothing “strategic patience” of President Obama.
Another highlight was Trump’s bull’s-eye description of Iran. Again, it was rude by UN standards, but right on target for anyone interested in the truth:
“The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos.”
And then there was the superb moment in which Trump, talking about the miseries of Venezuela under the Maduro regime, said:
“The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure.”
Those are words that deserve to be carved in stone, somewhere in the UN’s lavishly refurbished marble and granite halls. Come to think of it, they’d look good chiseled into the UN General Assembly podium.
Lest the assembled eminences had any doubt, Trump told them exactly where he stands: “As President of the United States, I will always put America first.” He said he expected them to do the same with their countries, but with the proviso that “all responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens.”
There was plenty more to his speech. We can now dicker over the precise policy implications of his phrase, “principled realism,” and debate what exactly Trump is going to do or should do about North Korea and Iran. We can note that he got the date wrong on his trip to Saudi Arabia — it was this year, not last year. Plenty to discuss, and I’m sure the discussion will extend from now until at least the next round of Sunday TV talk shows.
But the bottom line is that for the first time in years, an American president went before the UN and in plain words spelled out some vital truths about America, the UN, and the world. Whatever the UN General Assembly might make of it, once it recovers from the shock, that’s a good thing for the world, and a very good thing for America.