While I will go back to writing about trends in environmental sustainability in a week or two, so many people have asked me what I think about Donald Trump’s recent speech at the United Nations and his subsequent Press Conference that I felt I needed to respond.
As some people know, I try my best to not follow the news cycle that President Trump creates around himself and his administration as I find that its not good for my health and makes it difficult to get quality work done. Instead I wait a few days and then make a concerted effort to read, watch, and digest those stories that I think are critical with the benefit of written commentary and a bit of distance.
What this means in this case is that I sat through more than 2 hours of the Trump Show this weekend and also spent some time diving into the very large amount of commentary and counter commentary that his performance has generated. While the speech and Press conference generated many headlines concerning the hearings to put Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court and were full of factual exaggerations and lies, for me there is a deeper geo-political substance which makes me more concerned than ever about the legacy this man will leave in the United States and the world.
Trump’s UN Speech was well written with a relatively clear structure, snappy alliteration and almost poetic phrases. Whoever wrote it did a good job, in my view, in laying out the core of the neo-conservative ideology that Trump has made his own. The core of the argument is that each country is sovereign to do as it pleases and the United States will not be beholden to any supranational institutions. As President, Trump sees his job to defend the interests of the United States as he sees it and he urged the leaders of other countries to do the same.
His view is that in a world where each one defends their interests, bi-lateral understanding can be reached and everyone will benefit. As discussed by Richard Haas, the President of the Council of Foreign Relations, in an outstanding article in the Atlantic last year, Trump’s foreign policy is not actually isolationist in the classic sense but is more an abdication of the leading role that the U.S. has played in world affairs since the 1940s.
Trump’s press conference was much less polished but still went even further in the same direction as he again and again reduced the nuances of international diplomacy to a zero sum game defined by trade deficits.
Trump also indicated that he saw no reason for the United States to use its own armed forces for the defense of other nations if they were not willing to pay for that defense questioning the basic military structure that the U.S. has deployed around the world since the Second World War. Trump signaled out Japan and South Korea for not paying for that protection without any apparent regard for the context of the U.S. deployment in Asia-Pacific.
Perhaps the most scary part of the press conference was when he insisted that he gave nothing to Kim Jong Un except for meeting with him in Singapore and then went on to explain that the reason he has cancelled war games with South Korea is that they are expensive. What Trump either fails to see or pretends not to know is that such war games are an essential aspect of military planning and that by canceling them he lessons our deterrent. To make things even worse, by public embracing Kim and saying how much he likes him, he is giving another brutal dictator a free pass.
Last year I wrote another post which was very critical of Trump’s first “Fire and Fury” speech threatening North Korea with nuclear war. My issue at that time was not so much the content of his threats, but the spontaneous nature of them as they came out in a press conference about Opiates without any apparent preparation by the national security staff or State Department.
This same lack of preparation was on display during the press conference as Trump told how a question at a rally prompted him to read about the siege of Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in Syria. Trump then found a story on the issue in the New York Times and based on that, tweeted out his opposition to a massive attack and then ordered the Secretary of State to do what he could to stop it.
My problem with this story is not that the President used his influence, both public and private, to stop or at least delay what would have been a massacre, but did so on his own based on a comment at a rally and a newspaper article rather than in a deliberate way based on deep analysis by his own National Security team with detailed information from the intelligence agencies.
According to Trump, the United States will soon have in place a number of fantastic deals on trade and defense spending which will somehow replace the global network of institutions and alliances that have kept the peace for the last 70 years.
His vision is far from the shining city on the hill that was so well represented by Barak Obama, Bill Clinton, George H. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter and Jack Kennedy to name a few other U.S. Presidents who had a clear sense of right and wrong and a view as to the U.S.’s special role in the world.
Trump is closer to Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon. Men who sought power for its own sake and will be remembered by history for their hubris, mistakes and, in the case of Nixon, obstruction of justice.
At the United Nations, the General Assembly laughed out loud when Trump made the claim to have “accomplished more than almost any other american administration” and while he claimed that the reported laughter was “fake news” you can watch the first minute of the speech and make up your own mind.
The German delegation, shown above, were laughing at another comment made concerning Germany’s energy dependence on Russia.
Trump’s version of sovereignty at all costs only empowers brutal and corrupt regimes such as the ones in Tehran and Caracas that he says he is against. If the world buys this version of the future I am afraid we will not be laughing very long.