Donald Trump’s bullying UN speech shows he is not the leader the world needs
Kevin Rafferty says the US president’s bluster at the United Nations revealed dangerously misplaced priorities, but can other leaders come together to tackle the real issues of our time?
Advisers to US President Donald Trump promised he would take a “philosophical” approach in his speech to the United Nations. If it was philosophy, it was that of an adolescent schoolyard bully threatening to beat up any challenger.
Of course, it is worse because Trump has an arsenal of several thousand nuclear weapons at his fingertips. Even so, it was stunning to hear Trump threaten “to totally destroy” North Korea if Kim Jong-un refused to cease his nuclear ambitions.
It is past time for other world leaders to come together and show global leadership to challenge Trump on issues including climate change and environmental degradation, growing gaps between rich and poor across the world, persecution of minorities for their race or religion and the dangerous rise of nationalism – none of which Trump mentioned – as well as the threats of nuclear North Korea, mass migration and terrorism.
Many world leaders are preoccupied with domestic problems, and even if they can come together, tackling most of these issues requires a longer view than to the next election, the sacrificing of narrow national interests, and an ability to think outside conventional boxes – as well as taking on bullying Trump.
French President Emmanuel Macron, the only leader at the top table free of an immediate domestic challenge, pointed to the lessons that France and Europe learned 80 years ago from nationalism. “Nationalism is all about war,” he told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour from the same United Nations building where Trump spoke.
Macron was echoing Trump’s predecessor Barack Obama, who had told the general assembly a year earlier that: “At this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
Trump preached nationalism on steroids, and warned, like a fiery evangelistic preacher, that the world was going to hell.
His message was self-righteous: “The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based. They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries. If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.”
But Trump was highly selective in his enemies. Besides the “Rocket Man” jibe, he called North Korea “this band of criminals”.
Next was Iran, “a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country, with a rich history and culture, into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed and chaos”.
Strangely, for a man hell-bent on preventing Pyongyang from acquiring nuclear weapons, which is already a lost cause, Trump wants to tear up the international deal under which Iran agreed to roll back its nuclear programme. What kind of message does that send to Kim and the ayatollahs?
Despite preaching the sacredness of sovereignty (which he mentioned 21 times in 40 minutes), Trump demanded removal of his tyrants of choice, with Bashar al-Assad of Syria, Nicolas Maduro of Venezuela and the Communist regime in Cuba getting leading mentions. He took swipes at Russia for interference in Ukraine, and China for the South China Sea, without mentioning them by name.
Trump did not mention the flight of several hundred thousand Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar. He passed over the tragedy of Yemen, where more than 20 million need humanitarian assistance, thousands have been killed and almost every rule of modern warfare is routinely flouted.
Trump blamed Iran for Yemen, but praised Saudi Arabia – the most active player in the Yemen civil war and exporter of its hardline Wahhabi Islam – for putting together an Arab and Muslim coalition to fight evil Islamic terrorists.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Trump’s UN speech is that it was only a quick passing storm on American networks. By the same evening, Trump at the UN was sidelined on CNN for the devastation of the earthquake in Mexico, news of the latest hurricane, new disclosures in the hunt for evidence of collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign, and fresh Republican attempts to repeal Obamacare.
The cruel conclusion from this is that Trump’s trumpetings have become so mainstream that Americans don’t realise or don’t care about the damage he is doing to America’s reputation. Can Macron persuade Angela Merkel to revise the great power club to bring China and India in and convince them that the future and health of the Earth demands a global view, global ideas and global solutions?
Kevin Rafferty, former World Bank official and Osaka University professor, has edited daily newspapers in 30 cities on five continents