On Tuesday, Hurricane Trump made landfall at UN Headquarters in Turtle Bay. What had been feared as a category 5 storm had weakened to category 3 – which can still cause considerable destruction. Trump invoked Biblical language in justification for the harsh rhetoric against the ‘scourge of our planet’ today: ‘If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph’.
President Donald Trump’s 42-minute address in the General Assembly was described by the Guardian as ‘bluster and belligerence’. Another columnist noted that Trump’s tone channelled past UN speeches by Nikita Khrushchev, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez more than any previous US president.
Examples of incoherence were littered liberally throughout the speech. Trump connected the dots between the ‘reckless’ and ‘rogue regimes’ of Iran and North Korea ‘that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based’. But it was the US that committed the ‘supreme crime’ of aggression in invading and occupying Iraq in 2003.
North Korea’s regime was described as ‘depraved’ and Kim mocked as ‘Rocket Man on a suicide mission’. The ‘only acceptable’ outcome of the crisis on the Korean Peninsula is ‘denuclearisation’, when in reality the non-proliferation train left Pyongyang Central in 2006. If forced to defend itself or its allies, the US ‘will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea’ – a threat to commit genocide, as Michael Krepon of the Stimson Center noted, from the podium of the body with the mandate to prevent genocide. By this time Trump’s attention span had wandered from earlier remarks: ‘We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government’ and the need for all countries ‘to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation’.
Another example of cognitive dissonance was proudly proclaiming a policy of America First while pledging fidelity to the UN system as the avatar of the multilateral order. Trump used the word ‘international’ three times, in each case negatively, to refer to Kim Jong-un’s assassination of his half-brother at an ‘international airport’, ‘international criminal networks’, and ‘unaccountable international tribunals’.
Trump is fierce in his determination to protect US sovereignty on issues like immigration, trade and climate change. But he is too intellectually challenged to realise the contradiction in demanding that other countries ‘respect the interests of their own people’. As for demanding that all countries respect ‘the rights of every other sovereign nation’ and ‘work side by side on the basis of mutual respect’, the chutzpah is breath-taking. No other country disrespects the rights of others more.
This includes the history of Anglo–US meddling in Iran’s internal affairs. In yet another example of Orwellian doublespeak, Iran was demonised as ‘a corrupt dictatorship… [and a] rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos’. Iran was attacked for exporting terrorism, but Saudi Arabia was praised as a responsible ally in the war against terrorism and Islamist extremism. In his reply at the UN, Iran’s president Hassan Rouhani condemned Trump’s speech as ‘ignorant, absurd and hateful rhetoric that was ‘unfit to be heard’ at the UN.
Trump belittled the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) as ‘one of the worst and most one-sided transactions’ that Washington has ‘ever entered into’ and ‘an embarrassment’. He insisted ‘We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilising activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program’. His determination to break the painstakingly negotiated Iran nuclear deal is causing global alarm. The International Atomic Energy Agency continues to certify Tehran’s full compliance.
On 8 August, a 48-strong galaxy of American policy and scholarly elite issued a forceful statement that the JCPOA was continuing to prevent Tehran from pursuing the nuclear weapon option and that unilateral US withdrawal from the deal would put the US, not Iran, into non-compliance. On 18 September, 76 European political, diplomatic and military leadership figures published a group statement on the Iran nuclear deal, saying any unilateral US action that jeopardises the deal would harm US–Europe relations.
A unilateral finding of non-compliance by the US would threaten the viability of the multilaterally negotiated JCPOA and reopen a pathway to an Iranian nuclear weapon. Saying ‘It would be a great pity if this agreement were to be destroyed by rogue newcomers to the world of politics’, Rouhani said Iran would have a ‘free hand’ and would respond ‘decisively and resolutely’ if the US walks away from the deal.
The cascading effect would also aggravate the North Korean nuclear crisis, raising doubts about US good faith commitment to any international negotiations. Why would North Korea, China and Russia even begin talks with Washington to find a peaceful resolution to the nuclear impasse on the peninsula? The more Trump threatens Kim, the more he validates the latter’s nuclear choices and strengthens Pyongyang’s grim determination to pay any price and bear any burden to expand nuclear and long-range missiles arsenal. Trump’s bellicose speech ignored the warning-cum-plea from Secretary-General Antonio Guterres: ‘Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings’. Instead, any ‘solution must be political… We must not sleepwalk our way into war’.
The US is the UN’s biggest donor with 22 per cent of the regular and 28 per cent of the peacekeeping budget. Although I do not have access to the current figures, over a decade ago calculations showed that the UN contributes even more to the US economy than it collects in dues from Washington.
Trump is a property magnate with many holdings in New York. Imagine the impact on New York’s property values if the UN announced it was relocating to a European capital like Berlin. And the impact of such a move on the local economy.
Trump wants a UN that can enforce international norms on Pyongyang but must be rendered too impotent to confront Israel. He wants to decide China’s national interests in dealing with Kim. He wants world help to bully North Korea into giving up the only weapons that can stop the US from attacking it, but rejects international demands for concessions to North Korea and any role for world opinion in curbing US nuclear programs. Proof of this came dramatically just one day later when the UN nuclear weapon ban treaty was opened for signature. About fifty countries signed on the first day. Washington, backed by Australia, has dismissed it as irrelevant.
Collective groupings can help to protect small states from the predatory instincts of major powers; an alliance of democracies like NATO can operate on the semblance of equality. But inter-state bodies can also be the vehicle for imposing the will of the hegemon on others, as was the case with the Organization of American States and the Warsaw Pact in the past.
The small states of the world look to the UN to protect them from the designs of major powers. Should Trump or any US president succeed in subverting it into a tool to bully others to serve US interests, the UN will become a threat to most countries’ security. The world has learnt from painful experience that appeasement of insatiable great powers is a recipe for still greater demands; their greed is never sated. The UN needs to apply that lesson in dealings with Trump.
Professor Ramesh Thakur is director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament, Australian National University.