A sense of apprehension about this year’s United Nations General Assembly, held every September in New York City, was apparent in much of the previewing on print and television. Not only was the world’s foremost body for fostering international cooperation facing down an unprecedented attack from its principal host - although to be clear, the UN has jurisdiction over its premises in the Turtle Bay area of NYC - and benefactor, as Ambassador Nikki Haley never fails to remind everyone.
By a quirk of the calendar, this year’s session coincides with an instance of the US holding the monthly rotating chair of the Security Council, the UN’s most important forum for policy and decision making, which simply means that whereas its stature and posture usually ensure the US presence at the UNGA every year is hardly missed, this year they would be unmissable. All over its 194 member-states and their delegates’ faces, in fact.
The administration was clearly relishing it, and staff at the National Security Council, now headed by the arch-hawk John Bolton, and Haley’s office at the UN were said to be “working hand-in-glove” to prepare for the week, and State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Bolton, Haley and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, installed around the same time as Bolton, work together “seamlessly.” This was now the Dream Team of “America First” set to raid the UN, and they came in with a full schedule.
The chairmanship also meant that Trump and Pompeo would each be taking a turn with the gavel as well during the annual UN gathering. Pompeo, a Trump favourite, was making his debut at the UN General Assembly with an agenda focused on North Korea. He will chair a Security Council session where he will lay out Trump’s hopes for a peaceful dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and warn countries that bust UN sanctions on the country, while Trump was set to chair one on Iran and nuclear proliferation more generally (but you know it’ll be Iran mostly, if the chair has its way), after Dhaka Courier goes to press this week.
Before that there was Trump’s speech to the UNGA, scheduled for the very first morning - the US as host always speaks second - September 25. This in itself was making some world leaders cringe with the possibilities. Besides the usual suspects, there was no telling who would end up in his crosshairs. Coupled with his brazen, almost crude style of attack, it wasn’t so much the hurt it could cause that observers apprehended; it was the tendency to make the gathering extremely uncomfortable and awkward around each other, what was least conducive to fostering cooperation and agreement towards achieving important common goals.
Word was to expect another scorcher from the fiery Stephen Miller, the president’s senior domestic advisor and architect of the administration’s so-called ‘Muslim ban’ that ran afoul in the courts, the same man who previously authored the haunting ‘American Carnage’ speech for Trump’s inauguration, and last year’s UNGA speech, which was exceptionally belligerent. More of what has made Miller, at just 33, such a darling of the ‘America First’-brandishing, Breitbart-reading, Fox News-watching, borderline-racist circles that serve as Trump’s base.
In the event, after arriving more than 20 minutes late, and missing his speaking slot, an unexpected stumble early on in his speech served to virtually knock the president off his lofty perch (come to that later), and even though the speech he went on to deliver after that was even more parochial and confrontational than last year’s, when he presented “America First” to the world and promised to totally destroy North Korea unless they came around, it hardly packed the same punch.
Trump spoke for some 34 minutes, but it was in just the second or third minute that the unsuitability of letting someone like Miller - whose idea of a foreign trip probably approximates a week in cosmopolitan, multicultural New York - author a speech to be delivered at a global forum like the UN. Or maybe for Trump, that was the whole idea, to antagonize his audience, a bit like he did last year. What he, in his own words, did not expect, was that a speech pandering to his base would actually prove so out of place in the UN’s great hall to accommodate all the world’s nations. So much so that even the well-heeled, almost instinctively restrained and cautious audience broke out in rolling laughter.
It happened just as Trump boasted that “in less than two years my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” a truly out-of-place sentiment that UN delegates didn’t need to hear. As some in the audience chuckled, Trump (still engaged you can tell) caught on and sought to address them, saying ‘It’s true’.
That was the cue for outright laughter, that seemed to reverberate and make its way across the hall. Trump, to his credit, didn’t shy away, remarking “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.” That was probably his best moment, the one redeeming shot, as he never really recovered his poise or work up the conviction to lend much weight to the rhetoric, which was often bombastic, isolationist and threatening.
The laughter in the first moments of Trump’s address evoked a campaign line Trump frequently deployed against his predecessor Barack Obama — who embraced international engagement — suggesting that due to weak American leadership, “the world is laughing at us.”
In 2014, Trump tweeted “We need a President who isn’t a laughingstock to the entire World. We need a truly great leader, a genius at strategy and winning. Respect!”
The rest of the speech was spent putting his America First doctrine forward as a model not just for the United States, but for other countries. He advised them to embrace nationalism over internationalism. The rest of his address hit familiar talking points: boasting about the American economy; praising sovereignty; denouncing globalism, unfair trade, the UN Human Rights Council, OPEC and the Iran nuclear deal; and vilifying China, Iran and Venezuela.
He set out patriotism as incompatible with globalism, neglecting the reality that many of the challenges confronting the United States this century, including terrorism and nuclear proliferation, will require collective action, as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, pointed out.
Yet whatever the dangers entailed in his choice of words, today they were clearly being just read off the teleprompters with no evidence of being felt or even honest, let alone heartfelt. Delegates watched stony-faced, as reported by the AP, and frankly even Nikki Haley’s interest looked feigned. Trump’s own face during the speech wore a dejected look that suggested even as he was reeling off the words - which may merit more scrutiny in the days ahead - his mind was somewhere else.
Where nobody would laugh at him, no matter what he may have said, and they all hung on every word he uttered.