President Trump Addresses the United Nations

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

October 3, 2017

U.S. President Donald Trump gave his maiden speech in front of world leaders gathered at the United Nations in New York on September 19. In his remarks, Mr. Trump took aim at the North Korean regime, which, in a reference reminiscent of President George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” he labeled a “rogue state” along with Iran and Venezuela. The reviews are now in, and Trump’s address failed to impress many observers in the Middle East, many of whom are concerned about the possibility of increased uncertainty in the region and beyond. With a few exceptions, most have urged the U.S. president to embrace diplomacy and eschew conflict.


Al Ahram’s Khaled Dawoud characterized Mr. Trump’s speech as “disappointing” and a continuation of the U.S. president’s “America First” rhetoric: “U.S. President Donald Trump disappointed world leaders as he used his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly since taking office in January to confirm his commitment to his slogan of ‘America First’ and to wage sharp verbal attacks against his country’s perceived enemies: North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela…. Trump has delivered major foreign policy addresses before, notably to a gathering of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia and in a packed central square in Poland. But the issues at the United Nations are broader, and the geographical spread of Trump’s audience is wider. His message in New York will resonate in capitals worldwide, where leaders are still seeking a cohesive foreign policy doctrine from the American president. Clearly, this doctrine, when it came, disregarded many issues of concern to the world that Trump ignored in his speech.”

In an op-ed for The National, Faisal Al Yafai draws comparisons between Mr. Trump’s speech and that of his GOP predecessor, both singling out various countries as particular enemies: “Last week, when Donald Trump spoke to the United Nations for the first time, his rhetoric was similar to Mr. Bush’s. He singled out two of the same countries. He made specific threats against one country and unspecified threats against another. And in doing so he, like Mr. Bush before him, made diplomacy much, much harder. Threats in 2002 did not stop either Iran nor North Korea’s nuclear programmes; it accelerated them…. the rhetoric of both Mr. Trump and Mr. Bush always exists in the moment, taking no account of history nor of potential consequences. Had they done so, they would have realized that a moment of rhetoric on the podium can lead to years of hard, diplomatic work…. Yet the history of the aftermath of Mr. Bush’s speech suggests that Mr. Trump’s rhetoric could backfire.”

Despite very stark differences in style, veteran journalist Ramzy Baroud sees continuity in the president’s message, pointing out in a recent op-ed for Arab News that the substance of Mr. Trump’s speech was actually not very different from that of Mr. Obama: “The nature of the rhetoric in Donald Trump’s first speech at the UN General Assembly was largely predictable. Even his bizarre threat to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ was consistent with his overall style and previous warnings. But how different was his speech to the first and last UN speeches of President Barack Obama?… The use of words at the expense of real action continues every time Trump sends an embarrassing tweet or gives a belligerent speech. His address to the UN last week was a case in point. And despite their vastly different style – Trump’s confrontational approach compared with Obama’s composed attitude – their words promise ‘more of the same’.”

On the other hand, Israeli commentator Shmuley Boteach offers a more upbeat and complimentary perspective on the speech in a recent op-ed for Jerusalem Post, singling out his forthright condemnation of Iran and North Korea: “Trump offered a speech of moral clarity, unequivocal in its denunciation of the world’s most evil regimes. In some of the strongest terms available to a head of state, Trump went after what he called “the scourge of our planet” – the cynical, violent band of “rogue regimes” known more specifically as North Korea and Iran…. The denunciation of rogue states is rare to non-existent in the halls of the UN. The UN has embarrassed itself as it repeatedly morally equivocated on brutal governments and terrorists regimes. Trump upended the UN’s pathetic apathy, demanding and delivering a decisive moral code for the members of the global community to follow. He made it clear that overall support from the US to the UN would be dependent on the UN charting a new course, hopefully one where terrorist- funding “rogue nations” like Iran, and not democracies like Israel, become the target of the UN’s wrath.”

That assessment is an outlier, however, with most observers agreeing with Jordan Times’s Zaki Laidi that the speech signals a new era of instability for Europe and beyond: “Beyond his bizarre, intemperate tweeting, the challenge that U.S. President Donald Trump poses for Europe is real, but not always easily defined. There are differences between what Trump says, what his administration does and what Congress makes him do…. But even barring the worst-case scenario, Europe will remain in a state of deep uncertainty…. Trump has unwittingly created real opportunities for Europe, which is slowly realizing that it can no longer trust the US unconditionally. But to come together effectively in the face of a common threat, Europeans will first have to overcome their nationalist — or, in Germany’s case, anti-militarist — instincts.”

The Tehran Times editorial staff unsurprisingly takes a decidedly critical view of not only Mr. Trump’s speech but also of his policies, especially in light of the coming confrontation with North Korea: “While the majority of world community – and Americans – disapprove of Trump’s handling of current tensions between the U.S. and North Korea, he has so far refused to engage in diplomacy with Kim Jong-un…. Indeed, a necessary step at this point is for UN Secretary-General António Guterres to appoint a special envoy to spearhead diplomacy and work towards an official end to the Korean War with a peace treaty. Not many at the UN support warmongering by Trump, who is using the North Korean nuclear threat to justify more militarization, such as revoking Article 9, which threatens the security of the entire region. That’s completely unnecessary…. The game of chicken often ends in disaster. It is time for the international civil society to take Trump and Kim at their word and call for peaceful negotiations. They mean what they say. Now just one nuclear warhead can do the job.”

Finally, on that question, the Gulf Times editorial urges the president to take a more diplomatic tack on the North Korean crisis, pointing out that, given the role of the United States in the international system, Washington must play a more constructive role: “President Donald Trump must choose his words more carefully, lest he lead the United States down a path that could result in a military conflict that would prove disastrous. The game of chicken Trump and Korean leader Kim Jong-un have played since Trump’s inauguration is likely giving military commanders in both countries serious indigestion. But the world doesn’t look to North Korea for leadership. It looks, in part, to the United States. In that respect, Trump has to be better than Kim…. Diplomacy is not easy. Bombast gets headlines, but it rarely produces results. Trump can avoid boxing himself into a corner and win out over North Korea using a diplomatic solution. But it will require patience and what he claims to be the best at doing – negotiation. It is time for him to put his negotiating skills to use.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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