President Trump on Tuesday delivered a paean to his concept of sovereignty in a deeply nationalist speech at the United Nations that was sown throughout with warnings of the dangers of “global governance, control and domination.”
The speech, primarily written by Stephen Miller, the architect of many of the administration’s most restrictive immigration policies, highlighted the degree to which Trump’s foreign-policy instincts have been unshackled in his second year in office, as advisors who favor a more nationalist approach have gained influence in his administration.
In just over 30 minutes of remarks before the world body, Trump defended his administration’s withdrawal or refusal to participate in a laundry list of multilateral security and foreign-policy initiatives, including the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal; the UN Human Rights Council, from which the U.S. withdrew in May; and a new global compact on migration.
Echoing a speech given by National Security Advisor John Bolton earlier this month, the president condemned the International Criminal Court, or ICC, as “violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process”—at a moment when the court is weighing investigating the actions of U.S. military personnel in Afghanistan since 2003.
“We will never surrender America's sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” Trump said of the court. “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism. And we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
The speech was a sharp contrast to the message from the only other major Western power to speak on Tuesday, France, whose president Emmanuel Macron urged global cooperation and warned that “nationalism always lead to defeat.” In an implicit rebuke to the U.S.’s withdrawal from international commitments, Macron later said that his country would “no longer sign commercial agreements with powers that do not respect the [Paris Climate Accord],” which the U.S. exited last year.
In his speech before the UN General Assembly’s annual opening session, Trump described a transactional vision for U.S. participation in the global community.
In one stunning moment, he accused OPEC nations of “ripping off the rest of the world” while accepting U.S. security assistance.
“I don’t like it. Nobody should like it,” he said. “We defend many of these nations for nothing and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices... We are not going to put up with it, these horrible prices, much longer.”
The Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries, or OPEC, currently has 12 members, including Iraq.
Trump also defended his imposition of tariffs and get-tough bilateral trade policies, accusing other countries of “taking advantage” of U.S. markets, and threatened to yank U.S. aid from any country that doesn’t “respect” the United States.
For much of his speech to the international organization, the president repeatedly asserted the rights of the individual nation-state, a message that for decades was usually heard at the UN gathering by outlier dictators and Soviet rulers. The Trump administration has articulated its foreign policy as “America First”—a concept that officials have been careful to insist does not mean “America alone.”
The ICC in particular has been an historical target for conservatives who have rallied behind Trump’s solitary vision of America abroad. It drew few headlines during the Obama administration but has resurfaced as a friction point since Trump took office and has become an example of the starkly different visions of national and collective security between the two administrations.
In the twelve months since Trump shocked delegates by declaring, “I will always put America first, just like you, the leaders of your countries, should put your countries first,” he has changed his national security team in a way that has empowered nationalist advisors.
Perhaps most significantly, Bolton has taken the helm of Trump’s National Security Council, replacing retired Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster. McMaster was seen as a moderating influence on some of the president’s more isolationist policy tendencies. In Bolton, Trump has a national security advisor whose own hawkish worldview is seen as much less likely to be a check on Trump.
At the State Department, Trump has replaced former oil executive Rex Tillerson, a Washington outsider widely deemed ineffective in the job, with Mike Pompeo. The former CIA director, House Armed Services Committee member, and Tea Party figure is now a Trump loyalist who has shaped his team around advisors who are heavy on military and business experience.
Meanwhile, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley—who had established a reputation for independence and a somewhat softer approach to foreign policy—has receded into a less visible role since Pompeo and Bolton have come on board.
Miller, the author of Tuesday’s speech, is one of the key architects of Trump’s hard-line immigration policies—including the recent decision to slash the number of refugees admitted to the United States to its lowest point in 40 years.
A faction of the far-right—for whom Bolton is a champion—has long viewed the UN with distrust, if not outright alarm. The UN is a membership organization of states, not a stand-alone governing body, but critics of the organization argue that it allows foreign nations undue influence over American policy and turns a blind eye to offenders of the principles it purports to enforce, especially human rights.
Bolton, who was UN ambassador briefly under President George W. Bush, has been a fierce critic of the kind of multilateralism the UN is meant to foster. In his 2007 book about the organization, he argued that “the U.S. left… have found themselves unable to prevail in a fair fight within America’s system of representative government, so they now seek international forums to argue their positions, where there collectivist proclivities find greater sympathy among foreign governments and NGOs.”
He infamously quipped that if the 39-story tower that is home to the organization in Manhattan “lost 10 stories, it wouldn’t make a bit of difference.”
Trump touted to the UN’s world leaders in attendance what he declared as the accomplishments of his foreign policies, including the withdrawal from the JCPOA and his June summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
“The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction, nuclear testing has stopped, some military facilities are already being dismantled,” Trump said of his efforts to push North Korea to denuclearize. “I would like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he has taken, though much work needs to be done.”
Of Iran, he praised his policy of economic pressure to bring to heel what he described as “the brutal regime… [whose leaders] sow chaos, death, and destruction” in the region.
Perhaps the most notable moment of Trump’s speech was in his opening lines, when he pronounced that his administration “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” The General Assembly audibly laughed at the president’s assertion.
Trump paused and smiled.
“Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay,” he said.