A historic new low, or, President Trump goes to the UN

Trump’s remarks would be considered inappropriate at a Model UN meeting, let alone in addressing the real thing.

“In many ways the performances of Donald Trump remind me of chimpanzees and their dominance rituals. In order to impress rivals, males seeking to rise in the dominance hierarchy perform spectacular displays… the more vigorous and imaginative the display, the faster the individual is likely to rise in the hierarchy, and the longer he is likely to maintain that position.” Jane Goodall 

After almost two years of campaigning and more than 8 months in office, most of us have learned not to be surprised by the U.S. President’s bombastic language. So, when it was announced that he would be appearing at the UN General Assembly on Tuesday, September 19th, many expected that he would once again embarrass his country on the world stage.

His speech, read off a teleprompter, began pretty well, although he did immediately praise his own domestic record in no uncertain terms, only one part of which would have any relevance to the rest of the world, saying, “Fortunately, the United States has done very well since Election Day last November 8th. The stock market is at an all time high, a record… Companies are moving back, creating job growth the likes of which our country has not seen in a very long time, and it has just been announced that we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defense. Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been.”

As usual, the increase in military spending was a bipartisan affair, coming the night before the President’s speech and providing even more taxpayer money than he’d asked for, with only a few principled ‘no’ votes on both sides of the aisle.

At times during the more than 40 minute speech, it felt like Trump was addressing the world’s most senior diplomats as if they were a raucous crowd at a campaign stop in Iowa or Arizona. Perhaps the funniest moment was the awkward silence that followed a back handed slap at ‘socialism’ during which he waited in vain for applause that never came. 
It didn’t take long for the President to begin criticizing the institution of the United Nations itself. While it’s undeniable that the U.S. is the U.N.’s biggest funder, supplying over 20% of its operating costs, there are two benefits derived from this that Trump left out of his criticism, which mainly focused on the lack of ‘burden sharing’.
First, having the UN headquarters in New York is of tremendous benefit to that city, as laid out by a November 2016 policy paper prepared by the New York City Economic Development Corporation. Besides the spending on rent, food and other necessities by diplomatic staff that amounts to millions every year, the UN community supports, “approximately 25,040 full- and part time jobs” in the city.

If the majority of the American political class truly believes that the UN serves no purpose and treats their country unfairly, a move to Moscow, Beijing or Berlin could probably be arranged. Any one of these states, and a great many others, would be more than willing to pay for the privilege of hosting the body.

Second, and this could potentially cause some heads to explode, in almost everything, the United Nations is mainly a tool of the United States and still declining former colonial powers like France and the UK, who have veto power on the Security Council. In the post-Soviet period, the United Nations has rarely checked US led interventions, even illegal ones, from Iraq and Afghanistan to Yemen, Somalia, Mali and Libya, that have maimed and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent people.

Only recently, the United Nations at best tepidly accepted military coups in Honduras and Egypt, supported with a nod and a wink from many member states. Sanctions targeting Saudi Arabia and its allies over the despicable violence in Yemen that has led to the worst cholera epidemic in recorded history, are not forthcoming.

The lack of action on these issues can be explained at least in part by the undemocratic veto power wielded by the 3 aforementioned countries, along with Russia and China, who all shield themselves and their allies from international law using this unaccountable power.

A call for (more) war, in more places

The main body of Trump’s speech was composed of threats and rhetorical attacks on five nations: North Korea, Iran, Syria, Cuba and Venezuela, alongside the usual lack of empathy he regularly shows for migrants and refugees. At one point it did contain a surprising reference to “god’s” support of the modern nation state, which might come as a surprise to the leaders of most of the world’s major religions. 

The worst of the governments high-lighted by Trump by any objective measure, North Korea (DPRK), is built around a paranoid and often ridiculous cult of personality that takes advantage of the country’s admittedly tragic modern history to win the loyalty of its citizens.

The DPRK has consistently earned the ire of the international community for its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Just a week before, the permanent and non-permanent members of the Security Council unanimously voted to condemn the country’s most recent provocations and impose new sanctions.

Most of these leaders reserved their threats for the country’s leadership rather than the more than 25 million North Koreans who have little say in terms of how their country is governed. Trump made it implicitly clear that not only does his administration not care about their fate, but that neighboring countries, including allies South Korea and Japan, are expendable as well.

In accusing the DPRK of starving its own people, which is partially true of the current leader’s father during the 1990s when sponsorship from the old Soviet Union ended, Trump failed to note that, as Gergory Elich of the Korea Policy Institute recently wrote, “With around eighty percent of its land comprising mountainous terrain, North Korea has a limited amount of arable land, and the nation typically fills its food gap through imports.”

Without the ability to make up this shortfall, said to be aggravated by a poor planting season this year, it will be ordinary citizens who go hungry and all members of the Security Council, temporary and permanent, will have to shoulder some of the blame for what amounts to collective punishment, itself a crime under the 1949 Geneva Conventions.

In making the case that he has bigger hands than the DPRK’s young leader Kim Jong-un, Trump made the kinds of statements that most of the world laughs at when they emanate from Pyongyang, concluding his remarks about the country by saying, “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

In fact, the first response to Trump’s speech from North Korea by the country’s Foreign Minister Ri Yong-Ho, as reported by the South Korean Yonhap News Agency, was actually a little more measured than Trump’s rant, “If he was thinking he could scare us with the sound of a dog barking, that’s really a dog’s dream,” the country’s chief diplomat replied the following day. 

Trump’s speech soon swerved into a condemnation of the Islamic Republic of Iran, unintentionally showing that North Korea’s nuclear program is rational in the sense that it’s a deterrent to a military intervention in the country. He began this part of his speech with a casual denunciation of his predecessor’s greatest diplomatic achievement: the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) or, as it is usually referred to, the Iran nuclear deal. 

Some may wonder if Trump, who called the deal “…one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” has actually read the 159 page text that lays out the obligations of all parties, including Russia, China and the E.U. as signatories along with the U.S. and Iran, in no uncertain terms. Perhaps there aren’t enough loopholes in the document for the famously litigious President.

He then went on to blame Shia Iran for mostly Sunni inspired terrorism throughout the world, an old saw used to unfairly demonize the country.

In one sense, it may be that Trump and the rest of the “bomb, bomb Iran” crowd are right in the sense that the country may never have intended to build nuclear weapons in the first place and therefore gave up nothing for an end to the ever increasing sanctions imposed on the country since it overthrew the despotic Shah, a murderous tyrant who rarely failed to get the support of Western governments, in 1979.

While Iran’s political system as it is currently constituted leaves a lot to be desired, it contains the seeds of reform within it and is a massive improvement on the absolute monarchy that preceded it.

Considering how easily bored President Trump gets when presented with documents over 1 page regarding national security issues, we can be forgiven for thinking the man has no idea what he’s talking about in terms of the Iran deal and simply wants to stick his tiny thumb in former President Obama’s eye.

In fact, his own government has renewed the JCPOA twice since he took office, finding that the Islamic Republic is living up to its side of the bargain, apparently enraging the President who has demanded they figure out some way that the country is non-compliant so that he can take the United States out of the accord. 

Besides, as Daryl Kimball of the Washington, DC based Arms Control Association told Alternet after the speech, which reiterates my earlier point, “How will North Korea hear Trump’s speech? Iran did what it said it would do and you have an American president not honoring the American end of the bargain. Why should Kim Jong-un negotiate anything now?” 

The speech wasn’t without its boosters, who found themselves deeply moved by the President’s bluster. One of the most vocal of these was John Bolton, one of the few US ambassadors to the UN in history to fundamentally despise the institution.

 “I think it’s safe to say, in the entire history of the United Nations, there has never been a more straightforward criticism of the behavior, the unacceptable behavior of other member states,” he said in an appearance on Fox News, his latest employer. 

From this it appears that Mr. Bolton still doesn’t understand the purpose of diplomacy or the UN itself. As for President Trump, there was so much misinformation, so little understanding of history in his ludicrously self aggrandizing speech, it would require a book to unpack it all, especially in regards to perpetual American enemies of convenience, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran.

A Dignified Response

The following day, the President of Islamic Republic, Hassan Rouhani, took center stage and, in less than half the time of Trump’s long winded tirade, took apart much of what he, and his UN ambassador Nikki Haley, have said about his country over the past few weeks.

Speaking calmly and remaining seated, Iran’s reformist President, who was one of those who led the charge in his own country for the JCPOA, Rouhani took the previously sensible position of calling for peace rather than war. Unlike President Trump’s, it was a speech that is worth quoting at length.

“In recent years, a dominant voice has been repeatedly heard: “The military option is on the table”. Against the backdrop of this illegal and ineffective contention, let me say loud and clear that “peace is within reach”. So, in the name of the Islamic Republic of Iran, I propose, as a starting step, the consideration by the United Nations of the project: the World Against Violence and Extremism”(WAVE). Let us all join this WAVE. I invite all states, international organizations and civil institutions to undertake a new effort to guide the world in this direction.

We should start thinking about a “Coalition for Enduring Peace” all across the globe instead of the ineffective, “Coalitions for War” in various parts of the world… We should accept and be able to open a new horizon in which peace will prevail over war, tolerance over violence, progress over bloodletting, justice over discrimination, prosperity over poverty, and freedom over despotism.”

It’s an embarrassment that the leader of the most powerful country on the planet struts around like a senile peacock threatening other nations with war and isolation rather than calling on them to sit at the negotiating table and create a more peaceful and yes, ‘secure’, world. Rather than inspiring the globe with words like those of the Iranian President that call all of us to a higher purpose, President Trump calls for a return to humanity’s violent and tribalist past. 

Trump’s remarks would be considered inappropriate at a Model UN meeting, let alone in addressing the real thing.


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