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At UN, Trump looks to sell 'America First' to the world

© Brendan Smialowski, AFP | US President Donald Trump at a meeting with Qatar's Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on September 19, 2017 on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

Text by Sam BALL , at the United Nations in New York

Latest update : 2017-09-20

Boastful, bellicose and, at times, confused, Donald Trump's maiden address to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday was largely what observers have come to expect from the US president's public speeches.

Once again, the central premise was the now well-known mantra "America First". This time, however, the audience was not a crowd of fervent supporters at one of Trump's campaign rallies, but delegates of almost every sovereign nation in the world and, by proxy, the entire nations they represent. It would be a much harder sell.

"As president of the United States, I will always put America first," he told the delegates. "Just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first."

America First for all

Trump's message seemed to be that America First did not necessarily mean others second; that, on the contrary, everyone could be "first" if they followed the same guiding principles of patriotism and fiercely protected sovereignty.

He touted US achievements "since Election Day last November 8" – a rising stock market, job growth and a $700 billion investment in defence – as the potential rewards of a renewed emphasis on self-interest.

'A dark – at times chilling – speech'

It was no small irony extolling such a platform at an organisation ostensibly created, in the first place, to prevent nations from acting purely in their own interests without regards to their neighbours; to bring the world's governments closer through dialogue and debate in pursuit of the virtues of common peace and prosperity.

But far from suggesting that those virtues should be set aside, Trump was making the argument that they can only be achieved through "strong, sovereign nations" acting independently but with the shared goal of achieving their own security and prosperity. Trump was envisaging a world where nation states act as a sort of collective of individuals; the American idea of individualism extended to the realm of international relations. And a world, above all, where they do not rely on each other for help.

"Today, if we do not invest ourselves, our hearts, and our minds in our nations, if we will not build strong families, safe communities, and healthy societies for ourselves, no one can do it for us," he said.

Rogue regimes

Nations, as long as they uphold these principles, should have the right to pursue their own “values” and “culture”. But where they err, justice should be swift and harsh, Trump suggested.

In a portion of his speech that echoed George W. Bush's famous "axis of evil" rhetoric 15 years earlier, Trump singled out what he called "rogue regimes" threatening the international order: Iran and North Korea – two of the three nations that also happened to be on Bush's list.

“The scourge of our planet today are a small group of rogue regimes," he told the General Assembly. On North Korea he said that while the US "has great strength and patience", if forced to it would have "no choice but to totally destroy North Korea" – a threat as unequivocal as this forum has heard and one that spread concerned murmurs throughout the hall.

REPLAY: Watch Donald Trump's UN speech in full

It was another example of the slightly confused philosophy behind Trump's foreign policy – one in which he advocates non-interference at one moment, then threatens to unleash US military might the next. It was the same disjointed thinking that saw the US president authorise the launch of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase earlier this year with little warning and despite years of scepticism over US involvement in the country's civil war.

'Wisdom of the past'

But what role of the UN itself, an organisation Trump has long criticised, in his new world order based around self-preservation and occasional military retribution?

He once again raised the objection that the US shoulders an unfair proportion of the UN's funding. But his main bugbear seemed not to be the organisation's cost, but its methods.

"Too often the focus of this organisation has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process," he said.

'Brash and bellicose'

In another part of his speech, Trump outlined non-financial sacrifices the US has made in the name of world peace and freedom. "America's devotion is measured on the battlefields where our young men and women have fought and sacrificed alongside of our allies, from the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia," he said.

The suggestion seemed to be that for the US president effective foreign policy comes not through words but actions, not through years-long negotiations but quite literally through blood, sweat and tears.

It was one of a number of allusions to what Trump at one point called "the wisdom of the past" that cropped up during his speech, including the world war that led to the UN's founding. He suggested that patriotism – or to say it another way, countries putting themselves "first" – was what saved the world from tyranny on that occasion.

"Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain," he said. Some might argue that if it had not been for unchecked patriotism, twisted and warped into rampant nationalism, those countries would not have needed to spill blood for their freedom in the first place.

Date created : 2017-09-20

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