September 20, 2017
On Tuesday, President Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) for the first time (*). According to media reports based on White House and administration sources, this was going to be a “philosophical” speech. Yet, when Mr. Trump left the hall after his 42-minute remarks, he must also have left behind a confused and worried audience.
From his very first day at the White House President Trump has maligned his predecessor Mr. Obama and what he saw as his accomplishments, from Obamacare to the Iran nuclear deal and reconciliation with Cuba. It was only to be expected, therefore, that Mr. Trump would start his remarks by stating that “the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8th.” And, his referring at the very outset to 700 billion dollars spending on US military and defense and saying that “the US military will soon be the strongest it has ever been”, was a signal of what was to follow.
President Trump appeared to base his worldview or doctrine on the protection of nations’ sovereignty, preservation of their security and the promotion of their prosperity. He called them “the three beautiful pillars”. In his remarks, as others have also observed, he used the words “sovereign” and “sovereignty” 21 times. Yet, his message was far from clear. He said his administration’s policy is rooted in shared goals, interests and values, yet he mentioned the word democracy only three times, once in referring to Iran’s “corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of democracy” and twice in calling Venezuelans to restore their democracy. Clearly, democracy is not among the pillars of his worldview.
He said, the US does not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. And this was President Obama’s approach: “… The United States will at times work with governments that do not meet the highest international expectations, but who work with us on our core interests. But we will not stop asserting principles that are consistent with our ideals…”
And, this was what he said in his last address to the UNGA on September 20, 2016:
“… what is true in the Middle East is true for all of us. Surely, religious traditions can be honored and upheld while teaching young people science and math, rather than intolerance. Surely, we can sustain our unique traditions while giving women their full and rightful role in the politics and economics of a nation…”
The criticism President Trump directed at Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela was expressed in warlike terms. He called the Iran nuclear deal an embarrassment to the US and said, “I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it – believe me.” The President seemed to overlook the fact that the JCPOA is a multilateral agreement, endorsed and signed by the other permanent members of the UN Security Council and Germany. His language reflected total disregard for the principal of pacta sunt servanda, which means agreements must be honored. The IAEA and the Trump administration itself have certified that Iran is fulfilling its commitments under the deal. Thus, President Trump’s putting Tehran and Pyongyang in the same basket constitutes a huge contradiction in the context nuclear non-proliferation.
As for Iran’s destabilizing activities particularly in Syria, the truth is many others also tried to engage in such activities to advance their interests but sadly for them Iran was more successful in shoring up the Assad regime together with Russia.
All in all, despite his calls for cooperation his remarks were confrontational and bellicose. Yes, he thanked Russia and China for supporting North Korea sanctions but his reference to mammoth multinational trade deals, unaccountable international tribunals and powerful global bureaucracies spared no one.
President Trump was right about the need for UN reform. A day before at the “Reforming the United Nations: Management, Security, and Development Meeting” he said “in recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement. While the United Nations on a regular budget has increased by 140 percent, and its staff has more than doubled since 2000, we are not seeing the results in line with this investment…” Indeed, this is a problem for the entire UN system and needs to be resolved sooner than later.
PM Netanyahu addressed the UNGA shortly after President Trump. He proudly underlined Israel’s achievements in the fields of technology, agriculture, water, cybersecurity and medicine. He had every right to do so. He also heaped words of praise on Mr. Trump, particularly his remarks regarding Iran. All that needs to be said in this respect is that what the Middle East needs more than anything else at this stage is some semblance of stability, not another doomed external intervention. And, against all odds, democracy remains Middle East’s only path to progress.