Like it or not, Trump’s speech at the 73rd session of the UN General Assembly will be remembered as epic for some time. Remembered by scholars keen to know the president’s ideology, by detractors hungry for contradictions and nonsense, and by UN sympathizers as the worst attack ever on this institution.
Punctually, Trump denounced globalism from inside the building that, more than any other, has represented the cosmopolitan aspiration for a world parliament in decades
On the one hand, he again manifested a vision imbued with nineteenth-century geopolitical thinking stating- “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism”. This is the vision of a world order divided into many sovereign territorialities where individual societies are closed like watertight compartments within their national borders. According to this view, nations behave in analogy with the animal and the vegetal world, following a logic of survival in an anarchic space, where nation also means race.
He has form. In the introduction of his very first episode of The Apprentice, the future President described the world of business in Manhattan as “the real jungle. If you’re not careful, it can chew you up and spit you out. But if you work hard, you can really hit it big”.
On the other hand, Trump’s speech lacked the consistency to the extent he incited other countries to adhere to the mantra of “patriotism, prosperity, and pride” but also “peace and freedom”, rather than succumbing to an undefined “domination and defeat”. The embarrassment must have been palpable in New York. One wonders what is left of the United Nations if the commander-in-chief of its main sponsor is rejecting its political culture.
As a consolation to the aficionados of those two olive branches embracing the world, Trump’s anathema partly reflects a transitional historical moment, a world in flux leading towards an unpredictable international atmosphere. He was clear to what he regards as America’s unfriendly peers and called the dragon in the room into question. There are countries, Trump stated, which “violate every single principle” of the World Trade Organization by designing “government-run industrial planning and state-owned enterprises to rig the system in their favour”.
However – the attack on China, ultimately, highlights the limits of the American globalist grand strategy since the post-WWII era. If the fusion of free market and US military dominance helped American competitive businesses to thrive around the world, nowadays Beijing-backed companies pose a challenge to Washington’s economic and political primacy.
Many expected that Trump would crack the whip on China, but his criticism of Germany was as unexpected as it was clear. After congratulating Eastern European countries for pursuing energetic independence with a Baltic pipeline, he then said: “Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course”.
Although Trump’s origins are part German, the president seems to have little sympathy for a country “bad, very bad” at a summit in 2017. As with China’s economic competition and geopolitical expansionism, the US has two concerns with Germany: The nationalist economic policy agenda of Berlin is a source of competition to American industries and also of instability in the European Union, particularly given the recent winks and nudges between Germany and Russia. This could lead to German-American relations reaching a post-war low.
On North Korea and Iran, his contradictory worldview appeared. On the former he felt that “the spectre of conflict” has been replaced by a “new push for peace”, but on the latter, he said, “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction”. One wonders whether the shifting of attention from North Korea to Iran is a manifestation of military weakness, among other things.
If the bold rejection of that “horrible” nuclear deal and the tension that this is generating with Europe were not enough, Trump lambasted Venezuela and brought his audience back to the Cold War years, arguing that socialism “leads to expansion, incursion, and oppression”.
Regardless of his invective against the global order, his threats, and his eulogy to patriotism, Trump even managed to thank the United Nations for its work “around the world”. But he warned that this can be done only if everyone contributes and pursues “peace without fear, hope without despair, and security without apology”. But – inviting representatives of members states to listen to the “heart of a patriot” inside them is a long way from Winston Churchill’s hope for the UN – that it would be “a true temple of peace… and not merely a cockpit in a Tower of Babel.”