President Donald J. Trump revisited some of the themes of his America First foreign policy this morning in an otherwise short and disjointed speech to the first virtual UN General Assembly. By turns boastful and defensive, the president exaggerated his domestic and international achievements while offering scathing criticism of China for all manner of offenses, from inflicting a pandemic on the world to poisoning the global environment. It was a slapdash performance that included multiple tendentious claims and statements easily refuted by cursory fact-checking. It was also a missed opportunity for the president, who might otherwise have used the occasion to outline a sovereignty-minded approach to international cooperation, one that would have resonated not only with his domestic base but perhaps with some in his foreign audience. Instead, he delivered a shallow and unpersuasive address.
Seventy-five years after the UN’s founding in World War II, the president began, the world was “again engaged in a global struggle.” This time, the enemy was “the China virus.” Remarkably, Trump sought to frame the U.S. response to the pandemic as a public health triumph rather than what it has been: an unmitigated disaster that has resulted in far higher morbidity and mortality rates than in any other advanced market democracy. The president promised that more success was imminent. The United States would produce a vaccine, “defeat the virus,” and usher in “a new era of unprecedented prosperity, cooperation, and peace.”
This rosy scenario left a couple of things unclear. The first was why his administration, if it is so determined to save the world with a vaccine, has chosen not to have the United States join the more than 170 other countries that are members of COVAX, a pathbreaking consortium working not only to develop a vaccine but to ensure that when one emerges it is shared equitably by humanity rather than hoarded by individual countries for their own citizens. The second mystery is how the president plans to engineer the Kantian future he apparently envisions through a transactional foreign policy grounded in nationalism, nativism, protectionism, and unilateralism.
About one thing, the president was sure: “We must hold accountable the nation which unleashed this plague onto the world: China.” Trump repeated his by-now-familiar origin story of the COVID-19 pandemic: how China allowed the virus to spread globally and how the World Health Organization (“which is virtually controlled by China”) had facilitated Chinese mendacity by lying about human-to-human as well as asymptomatic transmission.
It is legitimate for Trump to call out China for its lack of transparency, to blame WHO for its early missteps, and even to brag that his own travel ban may have saved lives in the short term. It is quite another thing for him to ignore the catastrophic effects of his subsequent inaction and misinformation in ensuing weeks, when (by his own admission) he took refuge in happy talk and failed to mobilize the federal government and prepare the nation for the aggressive social distancing and other public health measures that might have prevented or at least slowed community transmission of the novel coronavirus. Holding China accountable is important. The same could be said of his administration.
Perhaps the most bizarre section of Trump’s speech, because it was such a non-sequitur, was his criticism of China’s global environmental record—its dumping of plastic into the ocean, rampant overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, toxic mercury pollution, and massive greenhouse gas emissions. These are all genuine problems, but the real issue for the president seemed to be U.S. amour-propre, or perhaps his own wounded sensibilities. “Those who attack America’s exceptional environmental record while ignoring China’s rampant pollution are not interested in the environment,” he declared. “They only want to punish America and I will not stand for it.” The outburst made one to wonder who “they” might be and why the U.S. environmental record is indeed a topic of scrutiny. The latter might have something to do with a U.S. leader who continues to dispute the reality of climate change and whose administration has gone into overdrive in its efforts to dismantle domestic environmental regulations. If China’s environmental record is fair game, so too is his administration’s.
The president then pivoted, all too briefly, to the United Nations and its purposes. “If the United Nations is to be an effective organization, it must focus on the real problems of the world,” he declared. “This includes terrorism, the oppression of women, forced labor, drug trafficking, human and sex trafficking, religious persecution, and the ethnic cleansing of religious minorities.” The United Nations, of course, is deeply involved on all of these fronts, in bodies ranging from the UN Counterterrorism Committee to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, the International Organization for Migration, and the International Labor Organization. At the same time, the president’s list was curiously selective. There was no mention of many other priorities that top the UN’s agenda and everyday work, from arresting the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction to conducting peace operations, advancing sustainable development, mitigating and adapting to climate change, and ameliorating the plight of refugees and the internally displaced.
The president next offered a rapid-fire list of his administration’s greatest hits, albeit with some poetic license in describing them. The Trump administration had “built the greatest economy in history,” “revitalized the NATO Alliance,” “stood up to decades of China’s trade abuses,” “withdrew from the terrible Iran Nuclear Deal,” and “obliterated the ISIS caliphate.” Trump took justifiable pride in brokering “groundbreaking peace deals” in the Middle East, notably between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. “We intend to deliver more peace deals shortly,” he promised.
The president was less persuasive when he declared, “America will always be a leader in human rights,” given his own well-established (and self-admitted) coziness with dictators and strongmen from Russian President Valdimir Putin to Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We are standing with the people of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela in their righteous struggle for freedom,” Trump said, making one wonder why the United States could not do the same in, say, Egypt or Saudi Arabia. Although selectivity has always been a hallmark of U.S. human rights policy, such hypocrisy has rarely been more obvious.
The president closed his scattershot speech by revisiting the main theme of his first address to the world body three years ago, namely, the centrality of sovereignty in international cooperation. “For decades, the same tired voices proposed the same failed solutions, pursuing global ambitions at the expense of their own people,” Trump asserted. “But only when you take care of your own citizens, will you find a true basis for cooperation.”
As I’ve written elsewhere, the president’s thesis is a straw man, because the United Nations (as the word nations implies) is an intergovernmental body rather than a supranational one. It is premised on the political independence of its members, and their decision to cooperate is an embodiment and an expression of their respective sovereignties. The “globalist” threat to popular sovereignty, in other words, exists only in the fevered imaginations of Trump’s base. It is a pity that the president is too wedded to this imagined collision between multilateralism and sovereignty, when the former is in fact premised on the latter. Indeed, many of the most diehard sovereigntists are to be found precisely where the president sees “globalists” running amok: the corridors of the United Nations.