Diplomats and heads of state from all over the world laughed at President Donald Trump’s boast that he has “accomplished more than any administration in the history of our country.” At the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, Trump took it on the nose—“Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK”—and then sleepily delivered a bellicose, 35-minute presentation of international cooperation as a threat to America.
Last year, Trump gave a #MAGA rally-caliber speech defending “sovereignty” that echoed one of Vladimir Putin’s General Assembly addresses. This time, Russia received a single throwaway reference, but otherwise, Trump intensified the sovereignty theme on Tuesday morning, as promised by his senior officials, contrasting “independence” with “global governance, control and domination.”
Much as Trump has equated immigration with an invasion, now multilateral institutions are coming for the sovereignty that Trump portrayed as the wellspring of human achievement.
At the heart of Trump’s speech, and his vision of global affairs more broadly, was a politics of dominance, one that expresses its agenda by locating it in its enemies. Don’t tell America what to do, Trump said, because every nation has a “right to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.”
That comes as news to the vast majority of the world over the past century, which has grown accustomed—though not acquiescent—to the U.S. throwing its massive power and influence around, often violently. That’s particularly true in what Trump has referred to as “shithole” countries. At one point, when Trump attacked socialism’s “oppression,” the United Nations’ webfeed camera showed two Swedish diplomats cocking their heads in amused bewilderment.
Trump’s message was hardly one of leaving the world to its own peaceful devices. It was one where Trump sets the conditions for the world to follow, cloaked in revisionist history. Global free trade, for decades pushed on developing economies by the U.S. and yielding substantial wealth transfer upwards, was portrayed as a mechanism for other countries to “rig the system in their favor.” In between praising the Trump-coaxing regime of Saudi Arabia, Trump attacked OPEC as “ripping off the rest of the world” before demanding protection money: “We want them to start lowering [oil] prices, and they must contribute substantially to military protection from now on.” U.S. efusal to participate in the 2016 Global Compact on Migration, an entirely voluntary framework, was premised on preventing an “international body unaccountable to our own citizens.”
Everywhere Trump looked, he saw global avarice encircling to choke the life out of America–an America he defined in the blood-and-soil terms of “a culture built on strong families, deep faith, and strong independence,” rather than the mixture of cultures that form the United States.
Financial and military aid, from now on, will receive a “hard look” and go to “to those who respect us and our friends,” suggesting that vocal support for Trump himself will become a factor in honoring historic American commitments to the world.
In Trump’s portrayal, migrants and refugees ought to be resettled “close to home,” as unchecked immigration contributes to a “vicious cycle of crime, violence, and poverty,” a stance enforced as a matter of policy that absolves the U.S., the world’s richest nation, from responsibility as a migration crisis accelerates.
As long previewed by Trump aides, the president delivered another hostile address to the “corrupt dictatorship in Iran,” which Trump’s attorney winks at overthrowing despite official denials. Trump didn’t make demands of Iran, instead rattling off Iranian bellicosity and urging a world Trump spent the rest of the speech denigrating to join in the U.S. “campaign of economic pressure” and isolation.
Meanwhile, the European Union is taking deliberate steps to undermine that campaign in order to keep Iran compliant with the terms of the 2015 nuclear deal that Trump’s sanctions violate.
It amounted to a declaration of white innocence on a global scale: an America victimized by a world it funds and protects but from which it receives no love or gratitude.
In Trump’s telling, all America wants from the world is to live and let live—but without consideration of the fundamental power imbalances favoring America that Trump seeks to entrench. Challenges to this arrangement come merely from “experts who [have been] proven wrong time and time again,” he asserted in a line aimed at critics of his widely condemned decision to move the U.S. embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, another sign that Palestinians will not enjoy the sovereignty Trump considers so vital.
Trump’s bet at the United Nations is that he rides a tide of nationalism in the world’s developed countries strong enough to withstand the moderating forces posed by international institutions. “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, and peace has ever prospered,” Trump lectured, neglecting the mass injustice that nations often choose to call “peace.” Thus far, Trump has seen electoral evidence, from Brexit to Poland to Hungary, of nationalism’s new appeal—even as the “hopeful futures” Trump sees in nationalist countries victimize the weakest within them. No one in the General Assembly laughed at that.