President Donald Trump’s maiden speech to the UN General Assembly was a confusing hodgepodge of tropes, themes and threats that made one unmistakable point: There is no coherent Trump Doctrine.
He awkwardly tried to reconcile the notion of “America First” with a global outreach and planetary humanism designed to appease and placate his largely international audience. Still, almost without exception, the key threats he identified — North Korea and Iran — will require, whether he likes it or not, the abandonment of America First in favor of cooperation with others. Here are the key takeaways:
Senior and junior ‘Axis of Evil’
Trump seemed to be most comfortable — consistent with his tough confrontational image likely to play well with his base — when it came to his language about a new list of evildoers with which America and the world need to deal. Trump has amended George W. Bush’s famous 2002 “Axis of Evil” list — dropping Iraq and maintaining both North Korea and Iran, for which he reserved the toughest threats and language.
He seemed to create another category of what you might call junior evildoers, including Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and maybe the leaders of Cuba. It’s almost certain that Syria would have made the big boys list were it not for Trump’s desire to preserve his ties with Vladimir Putin and US-Russian cooperation there. Undoubtedly, given his politics and persona, this part of the address had to be Trump’s favorite and the one most likely to make headlines.
At the same time, Trump tried to soften other parts of the address by trying to project the image of a leader who was by no means an isolationist or who saw America leading from anywhere else other than the front. Whether he believes any of this or seized it as an opportunity to placate his audience isn’t clear.
The process of trying to reconcile his anti-globalist sentiments with his America First message actually began Monday during his meeting on UN reform, where he struck a more conciliatory line toward an organization he’d mocked and pilloried. It was striking how much of the speech was spent talking about collective action — humanitarian assistance and a variety of programs, from empowering women to anti-slavery campaigns and global health.
He spent considerable time laying the groundwork about no nation carrying a disproportionate share of the costs but steered clear as he did earlier this year in threatening NATO allies who didn’t. There’s little doubt that Trump went into this speech not to seem the outlier or the disrupter when it came to America playing a role on the world stage in concert with others even while he challenges them to step up and do their share.
What happens in Las Vegas stays there
On one issue, Trump tried to be crystal clear: The United States would not seek to intervene in the affairs of other nations and would respect their systems of government. There was plenty of talk about promoting prosperity, security and counterterrorism but little about human rights and democracy promotion. The whole trope was riffed off the importance Trump attached to the sovereignty of every nation — almost to do whatever they wanted within their own borders. If you happened to be Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Myanmar’s military, Saudi Arabia and Putin — indeed any other authoritarian or autocratic regime — you would have taken heart in this message.
Still, Trump called out Cuba, Venezuela and Syria for how they treat their own people and implied that the United States could pressure them because the sovereignty of their persecuted peoples was being violated. It was a tricky line to walk. One might conclude that if you’re an important authoritarian for US interests, you get a pass; if you’re less so, you don’t.
The President is famous for bragging about his prescience on a wide array of global hot spots — and if his remarks Tuesday morning before the United Nations are any guide, he signaled he is committed to decertifying Tehran’s compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action by a congressionally mandated deadline of October 15. Of course, it’s not that simple or clear-cut.
Calling the mullahcracy a “rogue nation,” the nuclear accord itself “an embarrassment,” Trump is all but telegraphing that the status quo — despite the International Atomic Energy Agency’s technical seal of approval — remains unsustainable.
In Trump’s worldview, the nuclear accord was just a deal, and a bad one at that. Despite the rhetoric emanating out of the Obama administration casting the deal as a potential “game changer” in regime behavior, there is no evidence that Tehran has abandoned its revolutionary dogma. Think Syria, where, according to Israeli intelligence, Hamas, a designated terrorist organization, is setting up shop in Lebanon with Iranian support. Yahya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in Gaza, recently told reporters that Iran is now “the largest backer financially and militarily of Hamas’ armed wing.”
Nevertheless, Trump is running into European head winds. In some capitals — especially those of the P5+1 ( the United States, China, Russia, Britain and France plus Germany) — the nuclear deal has become too big to fail. Think Germany and France.
Hence, in the end, it’s likely the Trump administration will likely split the difference — by taking a more holistic view, and dubbing Iran as acting outside the bounds of the Iran deal, while continuing to waive sanctions embedded in federal legislation. He may indeed feel that such a strategy — of uncertainty — will give Washington the leverage it needs to try to affect Iranian behavior.
The other headline is likely to be North Korea, where Trump broke little new ground on what to do but used the toughest language yet toward Kim Jong Un — a threat to destroy North Korea totally if it attacks the United States or its allies. It’s important though to point out that Trump’s threat was conditioned on the hypothetical that Pyongyang would attack the United States or its allies first — a position that was in line with previous statements by Defense Secretary James Mattis and Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Trump mocked Kim again as “Rocket Man,” but more seriously, spent time attacking his regime as evil and criminal. Trump’s address Tuesday came no closer to suggesting the outlines of a broad approach to address the North Korean missile crisis. Indeed, if he goes ahead and decertifies the Iran deal, he’ll likely have one fewer option to address the North Korean problem. Kim will interpret walking away from Iran as the end of any diplomatic option should he be interested in one.
America First can’t mean America only
Trump tried unsuccessfully to reconcile his America First nationalist strategy with a globalist one. He went through all the motions of saying that he — like other world leaders — needed to protect their own country’s sovereignty and interests first. At the same time, the reality is that unless the United States is going to go solo to solve the crises and problems around the world, it will have no choice but to build coalitions and not withdraw into some kind of fortress America.
Trump knows he can’t solve North Korea without the Russians and the Chinese and has built his entire Mideast peace process policy on working with the Arabs. Even if he withdraws from the Iran deal, he’ll need the Europeans and others to build an effective Plan B.
The biggest problem Trump faces abroad — working solo or with others — is that he still has no strategy to address the tough challenges he’s identified.