Touting his signature “America First” policy doctrine, the US president speech heavily focused on respect for the right of the US to set its own immigration, trade, environmental, and other policies.
“We believe when nations respect the rights of their neighbours … They can better work together,” Mr Trump said in the speech as he hit out at Iran, US trade agreements, and a global compact on migration.
Compared to last year’s speech when Mr Trump used the word “sovereignty” 21 times, he only used it six this time around – however, the entire theme of this speech was clear.
“America is governed by Americans … We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the ideology of patriotism,” the president said bluntly.
The rhetoric, much of it focused on his accomplishments while in office, drew laughter from the delegates about one minute into his speech: “I did not expect that reaction, that is ok,” Mr Trump said during the unexpected moment of levity.
The rest of the speech, however, had a much “darker” undertone according to Anjali Dayal, international security professor at Fordham University.
She noted the speech was “less raging” than last year’s when the president called North Korean leader Kim Jong-un “rocket man” and threatened to strike Pyongyang.
This year Mr Trump compared US relations with Iran to improved ties with North Korea and Mr Kim – although he said that sanctions would remain on Pyongyang for now.
“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” Mr Trump said. “They do not respect their neighbours or borders or the sovereign rights of nations.”
Given the muted reaction from the assembly, it was clear not everyone appreciated Mr Trump’s attempts at distancing himself from his own global neighbours.
“America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, and I honour the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions,” the president said. “The United States will not tell you how to live, work, or worship. We only ask that you honour our sovereignty in return,” Mr Trump said from his carefully read, prepared remarks.
He also accused the International Criminal Court of “violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the ideology of patriotism”.
Ms Dayal added it was a speech with the fingerprints of National Security Advisor John Bolton and White House aide Stephen Miller all over it and the language was troubling because it is “a recipe for minority suppression … And chauvinist nationalism”.
To critics of the presidency, Mr Bolton is known for his anti-Iran fervour as much as Mr Miller is known for anti-immigration zeal.
“That is why so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions … We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons,” the president said.
He added: “We ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.”
The night before the speech, European Union foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini said Mr Trump does not have the power to negate the Iran nuclear deal, which he had refused to recertify earlier this year.
“The nuclear deal with Iran is crucial for the security of the region, of Europe and of the entire region. As long as Iran continues to implement its nuclear-related commitments as it is doing so far the European Union will remain committed to the continued, full, and effective implementation for the nuclear deal,” she said.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani, addressing the assembled world leaders later, sharply criticised Mr Trump’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear deal and said he had “no need for a photo opportunity” with Mr Trump and suggested the US president’s pull back from global institutions was a character defect.
“Confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength. Rather it is a symptom of the weakness of intellect – it betrays an inability in understanding a complex and interconnected world,” he said.
Ms Dayal said that rhetoric may cause a “contentious” atmosphere tomorrow when Mr Trump chairs a Security Council meeting on Iran, adding that the US is “squandering political capital in the Council it really can’t afford”.
However, after the speech the president appeared to take a relatively more diplomatic tone, saying he hoped the relationship between Washington and Tehran would have “a similar trajectory” to the vastly improved relationship with North Korea.
He noted on his way to another meeting at the UN: “Iran is a much different country today than it was a year ago. They have riots in the street they have horrible inflation, the worst in the world. Their currency is a disaster. Everything in Iran is failing right now … I think that at some point they’re going to want to negotiate. I have said no so far. It was me that said no, not them,” he said and blamed the media for covering that incorrectly.
“I think that at some point we will have meaningful discussions and probably do a deal I don’t see how it works for them otherwise,” he said.
Richard Gowan, senior fellow at the UN University, told The Independent that the president could still go “ballistic” on Mr Rouhani at the Security Council, but that it would be more of a “temper tantrum” than a change in policy or attitude.
Besides calling out Iran, Mr Trump also criticised China for its trade practices but made no mention of Russia’s interference in Syria’s war or its suspected meddling in US elections.
French President Emmanuel Macron painted an alternative view to Mr Trump, exposing some of the discontent over his words. Defending multilateralism and collective action, he warned that nationalism would lead to failure and if countries stopped defending basic principles, global wars would return.
“I do not accept the erosion of multilateralism and don’t accept our history unravelling,” Mr Macron said. “Our children are watching.”
One point was clear to Mr Gowan after the speech today: Mr Trump was “trying to shore up his domestic base” ahead of the 2018 midterm elections.
There were several sections of the speech devoted to domestic priorities. In one of them on trade, an important issue for his Republican base, he said: “We will not allow our workers to be victimised, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred” and also said the immigration issue can only be solved by helping “people build more hopeful futures in their home countries. Make their countries great again” and not allowing them into the US.
Mr Gowan said the speech was nothing new and he is not surprised by the varying tones and messages coming from the administration. He assessed the speech as “bleak” and even “dull” compared to Mr Trump’s delivery in 2017 and other foreign policy speeches.
“His heart didn’t seem to be in it,” Mr Gowan said, noting a European ambassador leaving the General Assembly chamber said the speech was “steadier than last year”. However, it was still “difficult to hear” for diplomats because of the prioritisation of “nationalism over global governance,” Ms Dayal explained.
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