A Menacing Speech on the Global Stage

Tension in the UN General Assembly was thick as President Trump delivered his first speech to the UN and threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea. The speech felt dark and gloomy, reminiscent of “the American carnage” speech he delivered on that sorrowful rainy afternoon of his inauguration. Diplomats squirmed in their seats; you could hear gasps. It was the first time an American President threatened to annihilate another nation from the podium of the world body that was created to foster peace between nations.

His words only succeeded in escalating tensions. On Saturday, North Korea told the General Assembly that Trump’s remarks make a “rocket visit to the U.S. mainland all the more inevitable.” Today, North Korea’s foreign minister said that the nation interpreted his remarks and some later tweets as a declaration of war.

President Trump also signaled that the U.S. would pull out of the Iran Deal, calling it “the worst deal ever.” This probably vexed American allies the most. By all accounts, the deal is the only thing preventing Iran from continuing its nuclear program. EU Foreign Policy Chief Frederica Mogherini said that all parties to the Iran Deal were in compliance and there was no need to renegotiate its terms. “One nuclear crisis is already enough,” she said.

The speech was also full of contradictions. Trump extolled the virtues of sovereignty, urging countries to “embrace their sovereignty” in defense of his own “America First” foreign policy strategy while in the same breath threatening military intervention in Venezuela. Sovereignty has long been invoked by countries to defend themselves against criticisms for human rights abuses. (It may come as no surprise then that Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov said Trump’s sovereignty comments were “something that we can all subscribe to.”)

Missing from the speech, of course, was any reference to climate change. This stood in stark contrast to the vast number of leaders who declared climate change to be our gravest threat. After hurricanes devastated the Caribbean and parts of the U.S. and droughts ravaged African countries, world leaders brought a sense of urgency to the podium at the UN on the need to address climate change. You could sense real fear. The world needs leadership on climate change, and after the U.S. led the negotiation of the treaty, Trump has decided to pull out. That leaves the U.S. and Syria as the only two countries not participating in the accord.

Trump also failed to condemn the atrocities committed against the Rhoingya, a Muslim minority, in Myanmar—a situation the Secretary-General has described as “ethnic cleansing.” Since August 25, more than 400,000 Rhonigya have fled the country. During a later lunch with African leaders, Trump lauded the great business potential in Africa, telling leaders that so many of his friends are “going to your countries to get rich.” He also referred to the country of “Nambia,” leaving participants to wonder if he was referring to Zambia or Namibia. Regardless, his comments were emblematic of this administration’s neglect of African issues.

UN officials were uncertain of what to expect from the President given his clear disdain for the institution in past remarks. The President famously dismissed the UN as “just a club” for people “to talk and have a good time.” Since taking office, the administration has sought drastic cuts to UN peacekeeping and humanitarian aid budgets—and has threatened to withdraw from some of its key institutions at a time when the world faces serious conflicts and humanitarian crises.

Overall, it was likely that Trump’s speech was what they expected: bombast and threats. Instead of seeking solutions, the President seemed more interested in pursuing conflict and violence. In stark terms, Trump laid out a vision for the world urging countries to only act in their own self-interest—a firm repudiation of multilateralism and the human rights movement which has existed since WWII, shaped in large part by the U.S. His is a vision of a global community where human rights atrocities and diplomatic challenges fall to the wayside in exchange for power plays and random acts of dominance.

Imagine a world where countries only act in their own self-interest? It’s a gloomy vision—and one where women and girls are invariably left behind. It’s one we should all reject.


Jennifer Norris is a lawyer who has worked as Human Rights Officer with the UN Mission in Congo and in Geneva. She is currently working on the UN reform process.