Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 25 September 2017

Cold reception to Trump Doctrine at the UN

United States President Trump made an aggressive “America First” speech at the United Nations last week, contrasting with the internationalist views of the UN Secretary General.  Which approach to international affairs will prevail?


There was such a big contrast when two leaders made their maiden speeches at the United Nations last week.

First, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres gave a speech based on common sense and a full dose of the UN’s principles of internationalism and patiently seeking peaceful solutions to conflict.

Then  we had the United States President Donald Trump who threw diplomacy to the winds, reaffirmed his pledge of implementing an “America First” policy and threatened countries selected to be a new “axis of evil”, including the total destruction of North Korea.

Analysts and governments alike have been left pondering what whether the US President had just codified a new Trump Doctrine, and what turbulence that means for the world.

The Trump speech laid to rest what had been expected when he entered office:  that the US would take a more isolationist policy, being less interventionist in other countries’ affairs, as Trump focuses on solving domestic problems with a view to “make America great again.”

Instead, at the UN General Assembly, he married the aim of “America First” with a display of hard aggression not polished by diplomatic language with regard to countries he selected to be called a “new axis of evil” – North Korea, Iran and Venezuela.

He said:  “Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens – to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values,” he told world leaders.  As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”

Trump praised national sovereignty 21 times in his speech.  But it became clear he was championing the national sovereignty of the US, which he could use as a principle to violate the national sovereignty of others.

“We will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said, upgrading his threat from the earlier “fire and fury” he had promised to unleash.

The Korean situation is a most difficult and complex web to untangle, but war-mongering to the extent of threatening to totally annihilate a whole country is not going to contribute to a solution.

The North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has predictably responded, that the remarks by a “deranged” Trump has convinced him that he is right to develop weapons.    

Equally or more scary is Trump’s description at the UN that the Iran Deal signed by Iran, the US and other major countries as the “worst” and most “one-sided” agreement the US has entered, laying the ground for withdrawing from it.

Leaders of most other countries gathered at the UN seemed aghast at the boldly aggressive nature of Trump’s speech.  Some American politicians were also upset.  U.S. Senator Dianne Feinstein criticized the President for his remarks and noted the hypocrisy in using the UN stage of peace and global cooperation to threaten war, according to a IPS news report.  

“He missed an opportunity to present any positive actions the U.N. could take with respect to North Korea…By suggesting he would revisit and possibly cancel the Iran nuclear agreement, he greatly escalated the danger we face from both Iran and North Korea,” she said.   “He aims to unify the world through tactics of intimidation, but in reality he only further isolates the United States.”

Trump also had harsh words for Venezuela, which he claimed was on the brink of total collapse.  He had earlier raised the possibility of military intervention.

In contrast to Trump’s speech, the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres made a balanced and rousing speech, calling on countries to cooperate and to seek peaceful solutions to political crises and to tackle global problems like climate change and refugees. 

In an interesting article, Max de Haldevang and Devjyot Ghoshal analysed how several parts of Guterres’ maiden speech at the UN annual Summit as Secretary General were “thinly veiled barbs” aimed at Trump. The following points made by the Secretary General were highlighted by the authors in this respect:


“Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings.”  Guterres was clearly for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea crisis, opposite to the Trump threats of “fire and fury.”  “When tensions rise, so does the chance of miscalculation; fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings. The solution must be political and this is a time for statesmanship – we must not sleepwalk into war.”

“Harsh crackdowns and heavy-handed approaches are counterproductive.” On terrorism, Guterres was for seeking solutions beyond Trump’s calls for immigration bans and relentless war against Islamic State.    He said:  “It’s not enough to fight terrorists on the battlefield…we must do more to address the roots to radicalization, including real and perceived injustices….Harsh crackdowns and heavy-handed approaches are counterproductive.”

“The science is unassailable.”  On climate change, the secretary general was clearly addressing Trump, who pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement.  He said: “The science is unassailable.”  Guterres used data to assert that the US, more than any other country in the world, had been ravaged by natural disasters since 1995.

The contrasting approaches to international affairs between the US President and the UN Secretary General will have repercussions in the months and years ahead.  Let us hope that the cool and internationalist approach of the UN chief will prevail.