The content of Trump’s speechThe reaction to President Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations this week was probably about what he had hoped for, which is to say that it was divisive, controversial and angst-inducing. Not surprisingly, his pugilistic rhetoric about North Korea grabbed the top headlines.
The liberal media and political figures were aghast. The Baltimore Sun asked, “Who’s the madman, Kim or Trump?” The Daily Beast led with the story “Strange Bedfellows: Israel and Saudi Arabia Loved Trump’s Nuke-Happy U.N. Speech.” The Washington Post featured a story describing U.S. allies as “jittery” without getting an allied government official on the record or on background who actually sounded jittery. After Trump’s UN speech, some senators called for measures to reinforce the war powers of Congress as a block on the president’s ability to declare war.
The left’s alarm was matched by conservatives’ triumphalism. Columnists for the Washington Times declared that President Barack Obama’s “apology tour” to the world was finally over, and on Fox News, there was praise for the president’s unequivocal condemnation of rogue regimes, including not only North Korea but also Iran and Venezuela. Even Commentary, a journal usually associated with the neoconservative movement and frequent Trump critic, had positive words for the president’s quasi-Manichaean description of the struggle against evil in the world.
For Trump, this was a good political outcome. This is a man who propelled himself to power by pouring buckets of salt into the social and political divisions that ail the United States. Obama professed to be a “uniter,” but Trump makes no such pretense. Indeed, his political base — which loved the masculinity of the UN speech — elected him to be the un-Obama, a divider of unprecedented scale.
The tone of Trump’s UN speech therefore invites appropriate criticism. Calling Kim Jong-un “Rocket Man” evokes pro-wrestling theatrics and belittles the presidency. That played well with the Trump base, but it undermines the seriousness that the administration wanted to convey to the world about the North Korean nuclear and missile threat.
But it is also important to pay attention to the substance of what the president actually said about U.S. policy: “The United States has great patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or our allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
This statement was not new. In 1993, President Bill Clinton stood at the demilitarized zone and declared it was pointless for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons because the North would be “destroyed” by U.S. retaliation.
The Clinton warning came at the height of the first North Korean nuclear crisis. It was a carefully considered declaratory policy to demonstrate that the United States’ extended deterrent (a nuclear umbrella) would be effective and that Pyongyang would gain no advantage by trying to blackmail South Korea and the United States.
The threat from North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs is far more serious today and any American president would likely feel compelled to reiterate a longstanding U.S. policy: that an attack by Pyongyang on our allies or ourselves will indeed end with the destruction of the North. The president said the right thing at the UN. I believe that a President Hillary Clinton or President Jeb Bush would have said the same at some point.
Of course, if the Trump administration wants the world to understand the seriousness of its determination to deter North Korea and fulfill American commitments abroad, the president will have to do much more than declare the power of American nuclear deterrence.
We have seen comparatively moderate speeches read from the teleprompter undercut the next day by bombastic presidential tweets. Several weeks ago, the White House decided to pull out of the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement over the objections of the entire national security team, then reversed that decision and may now be revisiting withdrawal from the agreement. This is no way to maintain steady alliances in the midst of a security crisis.
But just as it is incumbent on the president to adopt a tone and decision-making process that advances American interests, it is also incumbent on the media to analyze the substance of Trump’s declarations on U.S. policy and to put it in historical context.
There is far more continuity in U.S. foreign policy toward the Korean Peninsula today than there is divergence. Significant majorities of the American public say in polls that they support free trade, global engagement and the responsibility of the United States to come to the defense of South Korea if it is attacked. The administration cannot ignore this.
Trump’s UN speech was a tortured rhetorical attempt to preserve his “America First” meme and nationalistic dislike of multilateralism, without actually changing U.S. support for the United Nations or American diplomacy.
It was cluttered with inconsistencies and odd assertions. It will not go down as one of the great speeches of American presidents, to be sure. But the speech deserves to be judged on its actual policy content, no matter how hard the president himself sometimes makes that.
*The author is senior vice president for Asia and Japan chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and associate professor at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.