AS United States President Donald Trump took to the stage on Tuesday to make his United Nations General Assembly debut, the world watched with anticipation to see what message the controversial and unpredictable leader would present to the international community.
They didn’t have to wait long for the all too familiar bellicose, disruptive and nationalistic Trump to make an appearance.
In his first address to the 193-member world body, Trump channelled the bombastic rhetoric that so successfully shocked the American political world throughout his campaign and during his short tenure as Commander-in-Chief.
His hard-edged speech was full of strong language, threats, and a reaffirmation of his “America First” approach to foreign policy.
The 40-minute performance painted a grim picture of a world in peril and was met with stony faces from the delegates of the litany of countries he insulted or threatened. Minimal applause could be heard following the address.
Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom later told reporters, “This was a bombastic, nationalist speech. It must have been decades since one last heard a speech like that in the UN General Assembly… It was the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.”
Before he took to the podium, Trump said of his own speech, “It’s a message of peace, it’s about coming together.” Given the reaction, it appears it may not have quite hit the desired mark. Here are some of the main takeaways from the president’s first turn on the UN stage:
Threatened to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea
Grabbing much of the headlines today was Trump’s threat to “totally destroy” a country of 26 million people. Mocking North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump said, “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
“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,” Trump said.
The declaration was met with loud, startled murmurs throughout the hall.
Without being explicit, Trump also appeared to reproach China for its involvement with the dictatorship.
“It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict,” he said.
Labelling the Iran nuclear deal an ‘embarrassment’
Trump also turned his sights on Iran, accusing the country of exporting “violence, bloodshed and chaos” and of seeking to project its influence in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere in a region rife with sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims.
“We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilising activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear program,” Trump said.
— ABC News Politics (@ABCPolitics) September 19, 2017
He went on to harshly criticise the Iran nuclear deal, a pillar of the Obama administration, that aimed to curb Iran’s nuclear program by loosening economic sanctions.
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it – believe me,” he said.
Trump may have done well to read the room on this one. Given the UN hall was filled with individuals who participated personally in a dozen years of diplomacy related to the deal, analysts feel Trump may have burnt many bridges with his threats to withdraw.
The deal was viewed by many present as a win for diplomacy and a pivotal move in avoiding another nuclear arms race.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted a withering response: “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times – not the 21st Century UN – unworthy of a reply. Fake empathy for Iranians fools no one.”
Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times-not the 21st Century UN -unworthy of a reply. Fake empathy for Iranians fools no one.
— Javad Zarif (@JZarif) September 19, 2017
‘America First’ took centre stage
If anyone was left wondering what happened to Trump’s campaign call of “America First” after his engagement on the international stage, they need wonder no more.
The president kicked off his speech by trying to assure that, for all the foreign policy rhetoric that would follow, his priority was still America.
“Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens, to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights and to defend their values,” Trump said.
He also acknowledged that other countries would have different priorities.
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always put your countries first,” he said.
The Washington Post called Trump’s call for nationalism a “formula for domestic despotism around the world”, and questioned his basis for calling out other countries such as Venezuela and Iran, while simultaneously calling for non-intervention.
Calls for coordination between nations and support for the UN
In a seemingly paradoxical about-face, he seemed to undercut his calls to “embrace sovereignty” by asking for coordination between the world’s nations to “unlock the potential of life itself.”
“We will fight together, sacrifice together and stand together for peace, for freedom, for justice, for family, for humanity and for Almighty god who made us all,” Trump said, as reported by Mic.
He also expressed his support of the UN and the power of working together to solve the problems of the world, of which some parts are “going to hell”.
— Good Morning America (@GMA) September 19, 2017
“Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact many, are going to hell,” he said. “But the powerful people in this room under the guidance and auspices of the United Nations can solve many of these vicious and complex problems.”
In a departure from previous presidents, Trump message did not portray an America hoping to inspire and lead international alliances. Given the muted response and bleak looks on the faces of his counterparts, it’s possible Tuesday’s speech may have lost him some respect, some friends and dealt another blow to US international influence.
Additional reporting by Reuters