November 12, 2018 | ° F

ABDELFATAH: Trump must improve diplomacy rhetoric

Opinions Column: Global Perspectives


President Donald J. Trump delivered his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly last Tuesday, and it was "different" from the usual speech American presidents give. Trump started his speech by talking about the stock market and domestic U.S. employment. Normally the leaders of small nations use the U.N. General Assembly platform as a speech to their domestic constituents and about domestic policies. The U.S. has always been different. When the American president stands up there, he speaks to the members of the U.N. and signals American foreign policy.

In a significant departure from traditional U.S. foreign policy, sovereignty was a central theme running throughout Trump’s speech. He told the world leaders gathered at the U.N. that he “will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.” And that they should “reject threats to sovereignty.” The rhetoric on sovereignty didn’t stop there. He used the word sovereign 21 times in the speech. Former President Barack Obama used the word once in his first U.N. General Assembly speech.

Trump’s emphasis on sovereignty is more in line with the type of rhetoric used by authoritarians like Russian President Vladimir Putin than with previous American presidents. They have long advocated for an international order that respects their sovereignty by not interfering in what they consider the affairs of their state and for a much reduced American role. These statements could serve as a signal to governments around the world that the U.S. will no longer play an enforcement role when it comes to international law and human rights.

He then went on the attack against North Korea. Rather than outlining the threat posed by North Korean's weapons programs, the president of the United States used his time to call Kim Jong-un's regime repressive, exchange personal insults and then threaten to “destroy” the country if they attack the U.S. or its allies. Not just the Kim regime, but the entire country and its over 25 million people. In a shocking move directly against decades of American foreign policy, the president of the United States threatened the extermination of millions of innocent civilians.

He went on to be sharply critical of the Iran nuclear deal. The U.N., being an international forum for diplomacy, is an odd place to criticize a major diplomatic achievement but if he has already made up his mind on the deal it provides the perfect platform for him to explain the American position. But, rather than presenting and justifying the reasons for potentially decertifying the deal, explaining why Iran is not in compliance and what they had to do to remain certified, he just rattled off a list of Iranian aggressions in the region and called the deal “an embarrassment.” Trump’s rhetoric on the Iran deal is undermining American credibility, not to mention the fact that if he chooses to renege on it Iran will undoubtedly reinstitute their nuclear program and the U.S. will be dealing with two nuclear crises.

His railing against the Iran deal also exacerbates the situation with North Korea. If Pyongyang feels that the United States isn’t willing to live up to its word on nuclear arrangements, why would they ever agree to any deal? Compounding this issue is the fact that the president’s repeatedly vague threats in response to their tests have lead the North Koreans to believe that he is unlikely to do anything and lead them to describe his speech as a “dog’s bark.” Trump’s rhetoric seriously jeopardizes any chance that the crisis in the Korean peninsula has of reaching a diplomatic resolution.

Trump has been famously critical of the U.N. and has tweeted that it is a “club for people to get together, talk and have a good time” and that it is “not a friend of democracy.” He reiterated his belief that the U.N. needs to be reformed during his speech, saying that it must be reformed and focuses too much on bureaucracy and process. While there is a valid point to be made that the U.N. could use some reforms, when taken in the context of his earlier comments about sovereignty and unilaterally destroying North Korea and its people, his statements present a more depressing picture about the president’s view of the international system.

Trump’s speech was full of harsh language and rhetoric designed to project strength and toughness. At the same time a lot of it seemed like it would make more sense coming from a school-yard bully than the leader of the free world giving a speech to the international community. He referred to terrorists as “loser terrorists” and to Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man.”

At the same time, the president’s speech was strikingly low on useful content. He wasn’t necessarily wrong about everything, though. It is true that Iran has a dismal human rights record and has contributed to many of the conflicts in the Middle East. The Kim regime is extremely repressive. However, petty insults and bombastic threats are no way to conduct international diplomacy and his emphasis on sovereignty threatens to unravel decades of international cooperation spearheaded by the United States.

Yousuf Abdelfatah is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in political science and economics. His column,  "Global Perspectives" runs on alternate Thursdays.

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Yousuf Abdelfatah

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