September 25, 2018
Trump Puts America First at the United Nations
By Ashish Kumar Sen and David A. Wemer
“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” Trump told the gathering of world leaders at the opening of the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. He laid out his vision for US foreign policy, with an emphasis on protecting US sovereignty from global governance and rising globalization.
“The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship,” Trump told the assembled leaders, but “we only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
Trump’s speech covered many of the top international issues for the United States. Here is a look at what he said followed by our experts’ take. [Editor’s note: This blog is constantly being updated. Please check back for more of our analysis.]
On the speech
Daniel Fried, distinguished senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative and Eurasia Center. In the course of his forty-year Foreign Service career, Fried played a key role in designing and implementing American policy in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union.
“How can the United States contend with aggressive great powers (like Russia and China) if we share their worldview? President Trump’s speech diminishes the United States by abandoning our insight that our national interests and values advance together. Instead, the president turns us into just another great power grasping for our share.”
Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security. Among the many posts he has held, Vershbow was the deputy secretary general of NATO from February 2012 to October 2016, and the US ambassador to NATO (1998-2001), Russia (2001-05), and South Korea (2005-08).
“Trump’s rejection of ‘globalism’ and praise for ‘patriotism’ and national sovereignty masked the reality of the Trump administration’s growing estrangement from its traditional partners. The laughter that greeted some of his boastful claims only dramatized US isolation."
In his debut at the United Nations in 2017, Trump derided North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as “Rocket Man” and said that if forced to defend itself or its allies, the United States would “totally destroy North Korea.”
What a difference a year makes.
On September 25, Trump highlighted his June 2018 meeting Kim as a major breakthrough in US-North Korean relations. “The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction,” Trump said. “Nuclear testing has stopped. Some military facilities are already being dismantled. Our hostages have been released. And, as promised, the remains of our fallen heroes are being returned home to lay at rest in American soil.”
Trump thanked “Chairman Kim for his courage” in taking positive steps but maintained that US “sanctions will stay in place until denuclearization occurs.”
Jamie Metzl, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“President Trump's words on North Korea put a shiny polish on the North Korea negotiations to date but there is still no evidence whatsoever that North Korea plans or is willing to give up its nuclear weapons.
“If the Trump administration is happy to engage North Korea as a fellow nuclear power, the path toward closer relations is wide open. If not, the US administration has given up its leverage by making most of its concessions upfront and allowing sanctions to be eroded.
“Trump's approach has been a wonderful gift from the United States to North Korea but still seems likely to end up a costly failure if the administration still harbors hopes of North Korean denuclearization.”
Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“On North Korea, Trump once again exaggerated the progress that has been made since the Singapore Summit. The North Korean moratorium on nuclear and missile tests was announced before Singapore, and Trump’s premature declarations of victory and unilateral concessions have actually reduced the pressure on Kim Jong-un to dismantle his nuclear weapons, missiles, and infrastructure. They have also reduced the pressure on China and Russia to uphold the sanctions, further weakening Kim’s incentive to denuclearize.”
Trump also doubled down on his decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The president called the deal “a windfall for Iran’s leaders,” arguing that the funds it gave Tehran allowed it to expand its support of international terrorism and deepen its involvement in Iraq and Syria.
Trump described the return of US sanctions on Iran as a “campaign of economic pressure to deny the regime the funds its needs to advance its bloody agenda.” He added that more sanctions “will follow.”
Earlier on September 25, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini announced that the remaining members of the JCPOA (Britain, China, France, Germany, and Russia) will sign on to a plan attempting to work-around US sanctions, in order to keep the JCPOA alive, Trump called on “all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggressions continues.”
Barbara Slavin, director of the Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative
“After seeming to express regret that he would not be meeting in New York with Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani—going so far as to call Rouhani “a lovely man” in a tweet—Trump unloaded on the Islamic Republic in his speech to the UN General Assembly.
“While not mentioning any Iranian leaders by name, he described them as ‘brutal’ and ‘corrupt’ and said they ‘sow chaos, death and disruption’ in the region and have ‘embezzled billions of dollars’ belonging to the Iranian people.
“‘Many countries in the Middle East’ supported his decision to withdraw from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the president said. While it is true that Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates backed the move, the vast majority of countries in the world—including US allies Britain, France, and Germany plus China and Russia—are sticking by the JCPOA and devising means to circumvent new US sanctions.
“One wonders if Trump thinks that name-calling and sanctions will work with Iran as he seems to think they have with North Korea. However, Rouhani has made it clear in numerous appearances in New York that no Iranian official will meet with Trump until and unless he returns the US to compliance with the nuclear agreement, which Iran has, so far, strictly implemented.”
Amir Handjani, nonresident senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center
"The performance was vintage Trump: dystopian and unbalanced. The United States is clearly isolated on Iran. As President Trump is reimposing primary sanctions on Iran, the EU, Russia, and China are looking for ways to strengthen their ties with Tehran on a commercial and a political level.
“‘America First’ doesn't really fit with the international and multilateral approach taken by prior administrations in working with allies and partners to isolate Iran with the goal of changing its behavior. President Trump on the one hand wants to talk to Iran and cut a grand bargain (covering everything from missiles to Iran's foreign policy), while on the other hand he continues to demonize its leadership and blaze them for all the instability in the Middle East. That approach may have tentatively worked to bring North Korea to the negotiating table. It won't work with the Iranian leadership who have made resistance to US policies and pressure their raison d'être for existing.”
Trump made the case for “fair and reciprocal” trade and insisted that the United States “will not be taken advantage of any longer.”
He said that while the United States has, for decades, opened its economy with few restrictions “other countries did not grant us fair and reciprocal access to their markets in return.” What’s more, some countries “dump their products, subsidize their goods, target our industries and manipulate their currencies to gain unfair advantage over our country,” he said.
Trump has sought to renegotiate trade deals with US partners. In August, the United States and Mexico announced a trade agreement and on September 24 Trump and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said work on a new US-South Korea trade deal had been completed.
Bart Oosterveld, director of the Atlantic Council’s Global Business and Economics Program
“The comments on trade reinforced the commitment of the Trump administration to disrupt the status quo of the rule-based trade order and renegotiate trade agreements on different terms. So far, the administration has been able to do so with South Korea. Negotiations with China, the NAFTA partners, and the EU continue in fits and starts, and it is unlikely that any of them will be fully concluded still this year. In the meantime, it is reasonable to expect continued escalation of the tariff battles.”
The Trump administration on September 25 announced additional sanctions aimed at
Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s inner circle and close advisers. The targets of the new sanctions include Maduro’s wife, Cilia Flores, Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino, Vice-President Delcy Rodríguez and her brother, and Information Minister Jorge Rodríguez.
Trump urged the gathering to join the United States in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.
In Venezuela, Trump noted, “we are witnessing a human tragedy.”
“More than 2 million people have fled the anguish inflicted by the socialist Maduro regime and its Cuban sponsors,” he said, adding that socialism has “bankrupted” the oil-rich nation.
Jason Marczak, director of the Atlantic Council’s Adrienne Arsht Latin America Center
“President Trump was right to use his annual global address to call for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela. Too often Latin America is left to the back burner. The tragedy of what Maduro and his cronies have done to a once prospering, strong democracy requires sustained, focused global attention and action. The answers will come from the Venezuelan people, but the world must double down on helping to restore democracy.”
Trump described the United States as the world’s largest provider of foreign aid. “But few give anything to us,” he complained.
This is why, Trump said, his administration is taking a hard look at US foreign assistance, examine what is working, and “whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart.”
Trump said that in the future, the United States will only provide aid to “those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”
Trump reiterated his belief that the United Nations needs to be more effective and accountable. “Only when each of us does our part and contributes our share can we realize the UN’s highest aspirations,” he said.
Trump said he has instructed US officials that the United States will not pay more than 25 percent of the UN peacekeeping budget. “This,” he said, “will encourage other countries to step up, get involved, and also share in this very large burden.”
Robert A. Manning, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security
“This was a speech that seemed to be aimed more at President Trump’s base than an international audience. He comes to the United Nations and says ‘we reject the ideology of globalism,’ whatever he may think that is. Yet later in the speech Trump says, ‘The United States is committed to making the United Nations more effective and accountable. I have said many times that the United Nations has unlimited potential.’ So which is it? The meaning is unclear."
Trump hailed “great strides and very historic change” in the Middle East. He said the United States was pursuing a “regional strategic alliance” with the Gulf Cooperation Council, Jordan, and Egypt, to “advance prosperity, stability, and security” in the region. He specifically praised Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf countries for their efforts to combat terrorism and to end “Yemen’s horrible, horrific civil war.”
On Syria, Trump claimed success against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) and reiterated the United States’ commitment to “deny radical Islamic terrorist any funding, territory, or support, or any means of infiltrating our borders.” Trump also added that Washington “will respond if chemical weapons are deployed by the Assad regime.”
Trump defended his controversial decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, saying it was consistent with the ideal that “every sovereign state [can] determine its own capital” and an acknowledgement of “the obvious facts.”
Alexander Vershbow, distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
“As Trump was pretending that his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal has made the world safer, the other signatories were banding together to preserve the deal and mitigate the effect of US sanctions. Russia, Turkey, and Iran continue to pursue a political solution in Syria without US participation. The administration’s long-awaited Middle East plan, still in development, has already been declared dead on arrival by Palestinian leaders."
William F. Wechsler, senior adviser for Middle East programs at the Atlantic Council and interim director of the Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East
“Trump gave the Middle East a prominent position in his remarks, mentioned second only after North Korea. His promise to ‘not tell you how to live’ and his commitment to honor other nations’ rights to ‘pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions’ will be welcomed by our regional allies—and is quite a distance from the last Republican president’s Freedom Agenda.
“Every US president takes the opportunity to highlight their successes when speaking to the UN General Assembly, and to that end President Trump appropriately took credit for the military success against the Islamic State since he took office. The cataclysms that were predicted to accompany the largely symbolic move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in fact did not emerge.
“But it is certainly too early, however, to assess whether the new Gulf center for targeting terrorist financing that he touted actually lives up to its press releases or if the billions that the president noted that have been promised to the people of Syria and Yemen actually ever reach the needy. Moreover, despite the ‘multiple avenues’ being pursued to end the civil war in Yemen or the president’s calls for the peace process in Syria to be ‘reinvigorated,’ most would bet that the fighting in both countries will still be ongoing when President Trump speaks at the UN again next year.
“Three items in the president’s remarks struck me as more interesting. First, President Trump noted his intriguing work with the GCC, Jordan, and Egypt to establish a regional strategic alliance, the announcement of which has been rumored for some time but now seems likely to be delayed until after the new year. True alliances are difficult to pull off and even harder to sustain. The as yet unspecified details of this initiative will help us understand whether history will look back at this as the beginning of a shift in the strategic landscape or as yet another paper-thin media event.
“Second, President Trump reiterated his red line on the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime, something he successfully enforced last year. But as compared with the White House press statement issued just earlier this month which drew the line at the ‘use’ of such weapons, President Trump threatened a response if chemical weapons are merely ‘deployed.’
“And third, President Trump significantly ratcheted up his rhetoric on Iran. He is right to call attention to Iran’s dangerous adventurism throughout the region and to its widespread corruption at home. (Transparency International ranks Iran in the bottom third of the world, equal to Ukraine in corruption.) And he is right to tout his new sanctions campaign, since while some designations will be evaded the regime will overall undoubtedly feel the squeeze. But the Trump administration has thus far done little otherwise to live up to the anti-Iran speeches by the president and his secretary of state. Indeed, Iran has largely been accomplishing its strategic aims in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen with very little effective pushback from the United States thus far, and the administration has not yet found a workable framework to replace what the president sees as a ‘horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal.’ But since an anti-Iran foreign policy agenda is one of the relatively few issues that unites the president and his chief national security advisers, the administration will likely be exploring options beyond sanctions in 2019.”
Trump highlighted the booming US energy sector but warned that the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) is “ripping off the rest of the world.” He accused the cartel of “giving us high oil prices” despite the United States defending “many of these nations for nothing.” He warned “we are not going to put up with it—these horrible prices—much longer.”
He also focused on the energy dependence of US allies in Europe, taking specific aim at the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that would connect Germany to Russia. Trump congratulated Poland for pursuing its own Baltic pipeline, while promising that “Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course.”
Randy Bell, director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center
“President Trump’s criticism of OPEC during his UNGA speech is yet another example of his longstanding criticism of the organization, which predates his presidency by years. His comments come at a crucial time in US politics, where prices at the pump may influence the outcome of the US midterms. At this point, Trump’s statement is more directly aimed at domestic audiences, creating a bogeyman he can point to during election season if gasoline prices rise to levels unacceptable to US voters.
Of course, the main driver of the price increase is the reimplementation of sanctions on Iran – particularly if the USG is able to enforce the sanctions at the level they suggest. And while OPEC’s linchpin-country Saudi Arabia is fully supportive of the Trump administration’s hard stance on Iran, the president’s anti-OPEC rhetoric makes it harder for them to bring the group to consensus to increase production, ultimately working against the president’s goals to keep oil prices down. Regardless, the Kingdom insists it has at least 1.5 mbd available in spare capacity that it can bring to market relatively quickly – though some analysts question this claim. The next few months may force the Kingdom’s hand and their commitment to punishing Iran, or, alternatively, may suggest the limits of America’s ability to influence the oil market, despite the US energy boom.”
Ellen R. Wald, nonresident senior fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center
“This is very much in line with Trump's prior statements about OPEC. He has been calling out the organization for its monopolistic and anti-competitive practices for the past several months, and as recently as September 20.
“Trump is trying to pressure OPEC into enacting politics that will lower the price of oil to help American consumers, especially before the November elections. The president's political fear is that oil prices will rise and that his Iran sanctions policy will be blamed.
“At the same time, the president sees the Iran sanctions as a necessity for the United States but also as a major assistance to Saudi Arabia, which sees Iran as its primary regional antagonist.
“Therefore, in the president's argument, it is only reasonable for Saudi Arabia, and thus OPEC, to enact policies that help alleviate the higher prices of oil and gasoline. Meanwhile, this past weekend, Saudi oil minister Khalid al-Falih said that OPEC has no plans to increase its production quotas. Saudi Arabia has indicated it is willing and able to increase production if demand rises, which would stabilize prices. However, that is very different from increasing production to lower prices, which is what the president seems to want.”
Ellen Scholl, deputy director at the Atlantic Council’s Global Energy Center
“The dramatic rise in US oil and gas production and the ability to export crude and LNG actually helps mitigate the issues outlined by the president in his speech. By contributing to the global oil supply and helping create a more mature global gas market with options for buyers for whom the price is right or who are willing to pay to diversify their supply, the United States is helping shape energy market realities.
"The president would do well to point to these strengths and the benefits of competitive markets and free trade rather than lament the actions of a cartel and a monopoly supplier and call out an ally at a time when transatlantic relations are already shaky.”
Ashish Kumar Sen is deputy director of communications, editorial, at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @AshishSen.
David A. Wemer is assistant director, editorial at the Atlantic Council. Follow him on Twitter @DavidAWemer.