In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump dispensed with convention and instead spoke plainly.
It couldn’t have come a moment too soon. For the last eight years President Obama’s words promised peace and prosperity, that the world would be remade not through force but through the power of dialogue. His stated home was that terrorism and extremism would be vanquished not with war, but by empowering moderates and fostering economic growth. The arc of history bends toward justice and freedom even without America’s guiding hand.
But Obama’s deeds either demonstrated the futility of the approach or unearthed the fundamental untruthfulness of his words. By the end of his tenure President Obama was forced to walk back his timeline for withdrawal from Afghanistan, send troops back into Iraq in a desperate attempt to reinforce stability, proactively deposed Muamar al-Gadhafi then witnessed Libya’s fall into civil war, wobbled on Syrian engagement before ultimately arming the anti-Assad rebels, and was a passive observer after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Despite having pledged to end wars, he increased their number, carrying out military attacks in seven countries — more than his predecessor,” wrote Richard Fontaine in National Review. “But his fear of the slippery slope to another Iraq led his administration not only to wind down the wars but at times to telegraph its lack of commitment to winning them.”
President Trump’s speech to the UN General Assembly demonstrated that, unlike his predecessor, he will suffer no similar lack of doctrinal clarity. He will say what he means, and more importantly, he will mean what he says.
Unsurprisingly, that will make some world leaders uncomfortable. But if the last eight years have taught us anything, politicians’ soothing words led to much worse outcomes than being uncomfortable during the presentation of hard truths.
So what were those hard truths?
Inevitably, the political class will focus on the blunt talk aimed at demonstrably bad actors. President Trump called North Korea a “depraved regime” that has shown “contempt for other nations and for the wellbeing of their own people.” He warned that if North Korea’s “reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles” were trained on the United States and his allies that he would “have no choice to totally destroy North Korea.”
He called out Iran for using its profits to “fund Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims” and “shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, fuel Yemen’s civil war, and undermine peace throughout the entire Middle East.
And he lambasted the socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro that “destroyed a prosperous nation” and “inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of that country.”
These are undoubtedly harsh words. Words that are not typically shared in an international forum of nations. But which ones are up for debate? If political correctness prevents a world leader from calling evildoers evil, then we can no longer be surprised that the world slouches toward oppression, terrorism and warmongering. As Trump said: “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few then evil will triumph.”
Still, the calling out of rogue regimes and the castigation of their leaders was not the main, nor lasting, message of Trump’s speech. Or at least, it shouldn’t be.
Instead, his nuanced articulation of the importance of national sovereignty coupled with the ability to stand united when faced with a common threat, laid the foundation of an emerging foreign policy.
“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government,” Trump said. “But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: To respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for cooperation and success.”
This means that nations “have an obligation to serve their own citizens,” but, Trump argued, “making a better life for our people also requires us to work together in close harmony and unity to create a more safe and peaceful future for all people.”
Taken together his words demonstrate that we are sovereign nations that collectively form a world community, one committed in Trump’s words, to “the greatest shared interest of all: A future of dignity and peace for the people of this wonderful Earth.”
Criticism of the speech is inevitable. Such is the world of politics. But despite President Obama’s best hopes, he left the world neither safer nor freer. Change was needed and that’s what Trump is delivering.