When Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev banged his shoe on the table to make his point at the United Nations in 1960, other national leaders ranged around him broke into helpless laughter. When Muammar Gaddafi tore up the UN charter in the course of his marathon debut diatribe in 2009, after which he went to sleep, delegates were irritated only because he had thrown the day off schedule. And when Hugo Chavez complained that the hall smelled of brimstone because George W. Bush had swung by the other day, it only added to UN lore. The General Assembly has even heard outright lies without turning a hair, like Colin Powell’s confident assertion, based on precisely nothing, that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction. It is a forum for the world’s most successful political leaders. A little grandstanding is only to be expected to edify the constituents back home. And a couple of quick jabs at hostile states can’t hurt one’s prospects, either.
But the world may not feel so charitable when it looks back on US president Donald Trump’s maiden speech at the UN, because this was the world’s most powerful man ranting. Khrushchev delivered a power rant, too, but there is a fine difference between his threat to see “colonial slavery buried” and Trump’s promise to destroy North Korea, if necessary. Trump’s speech is confusing and unsettling on several counts, firstly because it goes against the collective wisdom of the Trump administration, and the obvious need for settlement by diplomacy. The UN General Assembly meets not to hear individuals speak, but to hear them speak for their governments.
But most confusing is a contradiction in the speech which should concern American foreign policy watchers as much as the diplomats of other countries. When Trump indicated that future alliances would be based on common interests, it sounded like a vote for democracy. But in his vision of the common interest — “a future where all nations can be sovereign, prosperous and secure” — democracy is not an explicit feature. Besides, if every nation put these goals first, the world would return to the state of affairs before 1920, when the League of Nations ushered in collective security and arbitration for international dispute resolution. Trump’s reasoning that sovereign and secure states would be better able to help each other is worth thinking about, but it seems to overwrite the very basis of US foreign policy from World War II onwards — the conviction that democracy based on the primacy of human rights is an intrinsic good worth propagating. If these central values are cast aside in favour of purely tactical factors, America will be greatly diminished in the eyes of the world.