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When an American president addresses the United Nations for the first time, the world looks for a clear sign of the world superpower’s priorities and policies.
And for some presidents, the speech offers the right forum in which to explain their worldview. George W. Bush gave his first UN speech days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and encouraged all nations to step up to fight terrorists. Barack Obama used his first UN address to call for the world to work together on climate change.
That brings us to President Trump, whose first speech to the UN Tuesday morning will largely be remembered for his fiery talk toward North Korea. But the rest of the 40-minute speech lacked an easy-to-understand takeaway message.
It would be unfair to call it incoherent — the North Koreans got the message — but it was often confusing, at times feeling more like four different speeches in one. Here’s a breakdown of what we heard and what it might mean.
The “you do you” speech
The first part of Trump speech provided a vision of how his “Making America Great Again” slogan translates into practical foreign policy.
‘‘I will always put America first. Just like you, the leaders of your countries, should and always put your countries first,” Trump said.
He went on to explain that the world order he would like to see would be based on “three beautiful pillars” of “sovereignty, security, and prosperity.” To him, this meant that each country has the right to do as it sees fit to protect themselves. Israel, in particular, liked that.
The Twitter speech
But because Trump always seems to resort to the language of his Twitter feed, it wasn’t long before his speech, too, took a turn. The Iran nuclear deal? “That deal is an embarrassment to the US, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.” North Korea’s leader is “rocket man” and he will “totally destroy” the country unless it stops its nuclear program. Later on, he flatly said some countries were “going to hell.”
No one can say that Trump wasn’t himself as he read from a teleprompter. At the same time, with a few exceptions regarding specific countries, the president’s language probably left many viewers confused as to where the United States actually stands.
Axis of evil speech part II
As much as Trump slammed George W. Bush during his campaign for president, he sounded a bit like the former president today. Parts of his speech echoed Bush’s language that called out countries as particularly bad. During his presidency, Bush coined the term Axis of Evil in describing North Korea, Iraq, and Iran. Trump picked up on the concept but swapped out Iraq for Syria.
Wilsonian belief in spreading American values speech
Trump finished his speech with a Wilsonian flourish that seemed to contradict everything else he said earlier in the address. Former president Woodrow Wilson helped found the League of Nations based on the principles of the so-called 14 points, among them the spread of democracy and capitalism and the idea that world powers needed to intervene in other countries to inject these values.
Earlier in the speech, Trump said that “in America we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But in this part of the speech he called for doing just that. He gave a full throated defense of democracy and how something must be done to help people suffering because of their governments.
Trump also spent a good deal of time discussing Venezuela, a country that doesn’t pose any significant risk to America. Yet Trump declared that the he was preparing “to take further action” to intervene. He then called for member nations, whom he just told to focus inward, to all work together.
What does it mean that he shifted focus so many times in a single address? It could just be Trump being Trump. His roving focus is certainly well known — just look at his daily Twitter feed. But it could also mean that he’s still working his way through his foreign policy strategy, trying out different styles as he tries to settle on the right approach.
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