Patrick and Robbins discuss the significance of President Donald J. Trump’s speech at the UN General Assembly and the response of the United States to global challenges such as those posed by North Korea and Iran.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. And hello, everyone. Thank you for joining us today. I’m Anya Schmemann, Washington director of communications at the Council on Foreign Relations, and this is an on-the-record call to discuss President Trump’s speech at the United Nations today and the U.S. agenda at the U.N. There are additional resources available on these issues on the Council’s website, www.CFR.org.
And I’m pleased to be joined today by two CFR colleagues to discuss these issues. We have Stewart Patrick, who is the James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council. He is the author of the forthcoming book—out next month—on “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” He also writes the blog The Internationalist.
We also have Carla Anne Robbins, who’s an adjunct senior fellow at CFR, and is also faculty director of the Master of International Affairs Program and a clinical professor of national security studies at Baruch College. And she is an award-winning journalist and editor, formerly at The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. So so glad to have you both with us.
So, as we all know, leaders from around the world are taking the podium this week at the United Nations General Assembly in New York City. And in a much-anticipated speech, President Trump addressed the world gathering for his first time, outlining his vision of how “America first” fits with the world. He also had some tough words about North Korea and Iran, warning of the great peril posed by rogue regimes.
Stewart, if we could start with you, President Trump spoke about principled realism. He emphasized outcomes over ideology. And he used the word sovereignty multiple times. How would you characterize his speech? Was this a pugnacious isolationist at the podium or the reluctant internationalist, or a bit of both? And what does the speech tell you about how the president views America’s place in the world?
PATRICK: Right. I guess I would describe it as a nationalist-internationalist speech, if that isn’t too much of a contradiction in terms.
You know, going into the speech and his whole appearance this week, people have been debating, well, how does the U.N. fit into an America-first worldview? And does the president, in a sense, have any concept of international order? Is it all transactional, my-way-or-the-highway view of the world?
I think that the speech certainly surpassed expectations from the perspective of his audience. Not all of them would be pleased about all parts of it. But he managed to square a circle, if you will, because he described sovereignty not as the enemy of the United Nations but as, in a sense, its foundation and, in fact, the bedrock of international order. And then he said, look, we’re here to pursue our national interests, but, of course, all of you countries and all of you leaders who are here are here to pursue your national interests. And so it was, in some ways, a plea for the United Nations to get back to first principles.
It was interesting that he also associated himself very much with the founding principles of the U.N. charter. He talked about, in text that could have been said by Barack Obama—he mentioned the Marshall Plan. He talked about U.S. leadership since the Second World War and about his desire for this institution to function.
Now, this—there were a lot of contradictions, though, in the speech, I should say. On the one hand, he sort of suggested that this was a back to—back to pre-1945 vision of U.S. international engagement, where, you know, we’re no longer—we’re going to respect the sovereignty of other people and we aren’t going to try to impose our vision about how other societies should be—should actually organize themselves.
But what was ironic was that many of the—in many cases he also talked about countries that the United States was not prepared to live with, not only because of the way they were behaving, like North Korea, but because of the nature of the way they treated their inhabitants, particularly with respect to Iran and Venezuela.
So it was a little bit schizophrenic in that regard because it was unclear as to whether or not he was actually offering a neoconservative agenda or really a much more strictly isolationist one.
SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Stewart. And just to follow up on that, I was struck that he called on his fellow leaders to embrace national sovereignty, telling them to do more to ensure prosperity and security of their own countries. Is that how you understand sovereignty?
PATRICK: Yes, I mean, I do. The notion of an international order built on sovereignty—sovereignty is basically the notion that all countries have territorial and political authority over a certain area and that their internal affairs are their own. It also implies a lack of international interference and intervention.
Interestingly, by using that phraseology, the president is actually associating himself with a very longstanding view and an article of faith amongst many of the members of the United Nations who are members of the nonaligned movement and then the group of 77, who didn’t want to be part of the Cold War.
It’s a little ironic, of course, for him to say that the United States has this position, since anybody with a cursory historical memory would be able to provide many situations and many instances in which the United States was more than happy to violate the sovereignty of other countries.
But I think it plays to his base, because it basically says, look, we are national communities. The United States is a national community and we have to avoid any notion that the United Nations is some sort of world government.
That being said, I think that there’s another aspect of sovereignty that the president really gave short shrift to, and that’s the tradeoff between freedom of action, absolute freedom of action, and actually the ability to get things done. And increasingly the ability to get things done requires going along to get along sometimes and making compromises. And when the president talked about North Korea, for instance, and said, you know, you can’t be bystanders on this, it sounded a lot more like George W. Bush saying—talking about axis of evil and saying you’re either with us or against us. But he was very selective about that. He made no mention of climate change, for instance, which other countries might say, well, if you’re not with us on climate change, why should we be with you on these other things.
SCHMEMANN: Okay. Thank you. So, Carla Robbins, let’s talk about some of the specific nations that he called out. He had particularly tough words for North Korea and Iran. He threatened to, quote, “totally destroy North Korea.” He warned that rocket man is on a suicide mission. He called the Iran deal an embarrassment. He also went after Venezuela’s leader and said some of the areas of the world are going to hell. So what do you make of this tough talk? Was it mostly bluster, or was there some real bite in there?
ROBBINS: Well, both. I don’t think anyone who’s been following the president’s tweets or—was surprised by the sound and fury of the speech. For me—and I’ve watched a lot of UNGA speeches over the years—it was a surprise to hear words like that—rocket man is on a suicide mission, loser terrorists, world is going to hell—in that hall. But, you know, these were tweet-ready quotes. And, you know, given how volatile things are, particularly right now on the Korean Peninsula, when he makes comments like to totally destroy North Korea, it is more likely to wind up Pyongyang than it is to calm down Japan or South Korea. So one can say we’ve heard it all before. I do think that was a less than helpful kind of comments.
I suspect that the European allies were less concerned, and even the Iranians, because they’ve heard it all before by comments like—you know, that he made about Iran, you know, that they were very axis of evil sort of comments, and comments like I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it. You know—you know, I watched his face about—his comments about the Iranian nuclear deal. He’s been saying that for a long time. And he says that about a lot of things—you know, wait—you know, you’re going to hear about wiretapping and Obama, and then nothing comes of it. And we’ll just have to wait and see what happens with Iran.
So, ultimately, you know, these were tweet-ready comments, and there was nothing really new. It was just shocking in the environment. Allies who were hoping that Mr. Trump is growing into the job or be moderated by the departure of Steve Bannon and the arrival of John Kelly, people who watched the president’s performance yesterday at the U.N. reform meeting in which he was very moderated, we’re likely disappointed by today’s speeches—by today’s speech and—but given also that this president switches positions so often, it’s hard to draw definitive conclusions about substantive policy on any of these things. He could give a different speech tomorrow.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Now, Carla, you’ve been a longtime observer of American power and American diplomacy and statecraft. And I’m just curious of your own perception of Ambassador Nikki Haley. Did you—did you hear her in the speech today? Was he channeling her to a certain extent? And is she having some influence on the president, do you think?
ROBBINS: I think the Ambassador Nikki Haley influence was clear yesterday more than anything else, the fact that she got him to the United Nations, got him in the room, got him to sign onto a list of reforms that would in theory give the secretary-general more influence and, you know, got him to eat his peas and say, OK, I don’t like the U.N., I know I said a lot of really bad things about it during the campaign, but I’m willing to support the United Nations if it makes reforms. I mean, there isn’t an American president who hasn’t bashed the U.N. for being overly bureaucratic and corrupt and making lots of errors, but the notion that she got him to this meeting—and in the speech today, he said he’ll buy into the U.N.—of course, we’re not going to be taken advantage of, but he’ll buy into the U.N. if it’s willing to live up to its mission. I think that is a sign of her influence. I think that—I think that she has had influence which, you know, she’s got him to buy, at least for now, into the theory of the institution.
SCHMEMANN: For anyone who is joining us late, just a reminder that this is an on-the-record Council on Foreign Relations discussion about the Trump administration and the United Nations, and I’m joined by two CFR colleagues, Stewart Patrick, who is a senior fellow; and Carla Robbins, who is an adjunct senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And with that, I think we are ready for questions.
OPERATOR: Our First question come from Josh Rogin with The Washington Post.
Q: Hi. So, you know, I was really fascinated by this idea of principled realism. And, you know, Stewart, you were saying a lot about how this—it’s a little schizophrenic. And, you know, some things look more neoconservative. Some things look more isolationist. It seems like this is their attempt to, you know, chart a doctrine that allows for ad hoc solutions, some of which will lean one way, some will—is that right? Or do you think that principled realism, you know, really is a real thing? Can you understand it as they’ve laid it out? Does it make sense? And is there a sort of a historical context for this kind of doctrine that we could point to, to see—to look back to see if it’s likely to work or not?
PATRICK: I think it is a doctrine. Well, first of all, I think it’s an attempt to marry a couple of different strains within the establishment U.S., or at least current, Republican Party thinking. Obviously, there’s a huge appetite not to get involved in international—in, you know, future international particularly military adventures around the world. So a real desire to focus on—first at home. But then, of course, there are still some neoconservatives and others within—who would be, like, supporters of President Trump, who would like to see some ability of the United States to expand human liberty.
I think that as a result, you’re going to see a huge amount of selectivity. And already you can see a lot of hypocrisy in when that—when that doctrine, such that it is, is unveiled. But the very title, principled realism, is not too surprising. Virtually every administration wants to—once they get in office, they want to say that, well, a policy of ideals and a policy of power are not incompatible. And we need to—we need to try to pursue both. What’s interesting here is that—is that there is the first time to actually trying to articulate a doctrine on that based on this principle of sovereignty and accountability.
SCHMEMANN: And, Carla, on this issue of principled realism?
ROBBINS: And I always felt like there was this, like the—you know, the op-eds we’ve seen from them. There’s a lot of attempts here to—they are trying to sort of fit what Trump’s views are and his campaign positions are into some sort of more traditional Republican explanation of foreign policy. And it’s really uncomfortable. I mean, his explanation for his refugee policy, for example. They came up with—you know, that this was very humane, but also economically made sense. It was—I suppose, economically it does make sense to settle people closer to their own home. But in the context of shutting the doors to refugees and the Muslim ban that he’d come up with, it was laughable.
So I felt that they started with a set of Trump policies, and a set a Trump—a set of Trump—such as they are, a set of Trump campaign positions. And then they tried to justify those post hoc. And I think—I mean, I’m a lot more skeptical that there was any doctrine that was laid out here today, so much as that they were trying to fit it into—you know, get Cinderella’s sisters’ toes into the shoes.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Operator, we’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: And our next question comes from Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News.
Q: Thanks very much. I just wanted to get back to this issue of the sovereignty. You mentioned at the start of the call that you felt that this was a plea for the U.N. to get back to sort of first principles. I think he mentioned sovereignty, you know, about 20 times in the speech. I mean, how do you see that sort of focus on national sovereignty and a desire by the U.S. not to impose its values on other countries as a way of getting back to sort first principles? Thanks.
PATRICK: With respect to this question and why it’s such a focus, there are a couple of different dimensions to that. One of them was sovereignty for us; in other words, the United States doesn’t want to be beholden to any notion that the United Nations is sort of, you know, throwing its authority around the United States, which is sort of a laughable idea for anybody who knows the United Nations and how actually incredibly small and weak the institution is. But it is a strong talking point within particularly right-wing nationalist discourse on the Web and elsewhere.
But then there’s also sovereignty for others. And the notion there is that we expect all countries to preserve their own sovereignty and the sovereignty of their people, and also to abide by the sovereignty of other countries. And I think that this is a convenient way for the administration to say, look, we don’t want to have international aggression, but we’re not necessarily going—for instance, in the care of Iran with state aid or in the case of Ukraine, which actually the president somewhat surprisingly, given his friendship with Russia, stated that we’re not necessarily going to be the ones who are leading a crusade to preserve other countries’ sovereignty. So it’s a little bit more of an isolationist take on that.
Again, the difficulty is that the sovereignty question can go out the window when it comes to what are the limits to which the United States is willing to protect and preserve the sovereignty and sanctity of others’ borders and not participate in a policy of regime change. You know, there clearly are criteria—threshold criteria that the president has in mind, at least at an intuitive level, and one of them is if—were Kim Jong-un to behave in a certain way, that we would actually more than deal with that country’s sovereignty; we would—we would obliterate that country. And this plays out—this plays out in a number of other hotspots that he talked about today.
SCHMEMANN: Thanks. We’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Next up we have Doyle McManus with the LA Times.
Q: With the LA Times. Thanks to both of you.
I want to go back and ask your takes directly on the North Korea part of the speech. Does the use of a term like “rocket man” have any utility, strategically or tactically? It was noteworthy that the president also did say a couple of things on the substance. He reaffirmed that the goal—the aim is total denuclearization. And he took a swipe at China, saying it’s a disgrace that anyone is doing any trade at all with North Korea. So where does this—what do you think the impact of that is?
SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Doyle. Carla, let’s go to you first.
ROBBINS: You know, I think—once again, I think Trump’s, you know, tweet language is beneath the dignity of the president of the United States, and I don’t think it helps with the credibility of any diplomatic initiative that one might want to put forward, certainly in our relations with our allies and trying to rally them into taking risks or making sacrifices, which inevitably is something that is going to have to happen to move forward with economic pressures, as well as taking military risks, which is the nature of trying to wrestle the North Koreans back into the bottle. So I cringed when I heard the term “rocket man.” I don’t know how you reacted to it, but that’s certainly the way I reacted to it.
He did take a swipe at the Chinese there, but a very careful swipe. And when you compare it to the way that he has over the months sometimes very directly accused them in his tweets of aiding and abetting, the Chinese, other times then it’s sort of sad that they couldn’t do more, or they were trying to do more and he wished they could do even more. So I think on—I think it was a reasonably oblique swipe at the Chinese.
And when you think about it, all told, he barely took swipes at either China or Russia in this. Other than the reference to the Ukraine, we didn’t hear much about Russia in this. And you didn’t hear much about, you know, the sort of doughty alliance with the South Koreans, not complaining about the South Korean trade either. So you didn’t—I did not see much of a way forward here, other than reiterating what the ultimate goal is and threatening them with total obliteration. So I think really the impact on all of this was to crank Pyongyang up and not offer a huge amount of reassurance to the allies, and certainly no new way forward.
PATRICK: You know, if I could pick up on that, I agree that, you know, it’s a juvenile tweak. And the president risks also crying wolf and undermining the credibility of the United States if we have this continued bluster. It also raises the possibility of miscalculation. I mean, I think one of the major questions with respect to North Korea is, well, deterrence worked with the Soviet Union. Is there not anybody who’s thinking that at some stage maybe we have to just accept that that is going to be our policy with respect to North Korea?
You know, he obviously called out China, which has been—obviously was instrumental in the most recent sanctions resolutions with respect to oil, and also textiles. But at the end of the day, the Chinese priorities, strategic priorities, are just quite different from those of the United States. And so it’s hard to know how much more leverage we can get them to bring to bear, because they do not want a collapsed or regime change occurring on the peninsula that brings GIs to the border of their country.
And I think that the notion that, well, as Ambassador Haley said, well, if, you know, we don’t get any action at the U.N. Security Council, we’re just going to turn this over to General Mattis. I just think that that wildly underplays the just horrific consequences of any military action there and, you know, I mean, not even to get to the question of whether or not the South Koreans would be on board with that sort of a thing.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you.Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Arlene Getz with Reuters.
Q: Hi. Yes, thank you. So part of my question you’ve just answered about North Korea. But I’m curious to hear what you think the impact of the speech could be in the sense that if Kim decides to respond in some way, is—realistically, do you think that the administration would really let Trump go ahead with some kind of final strike option, as he’s threatened? And what kind of response did you see or do you expect to see from the U.N. at what was an exceptionally blunt speech, using language that, you know, we don’t typically hear at the U.N.? So two parts to the question.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you, Arlene. We might refer you to our Korea expert here at the Council, Scott Snyder, on the detailed questions. But I’ll let Carla kick us off there.
ROBBINS: Well, would the administration let Trump do something? He’s the president of the United States. And while there was a recent poll—I think it was an Ipsos poll that said a majority of Americans think that the president is constrained by his military leaders and by Congress in the use of nuclear weapons, actually, the president—he’s the commander in chief. He can do, God forbid, as he pleases on that front.
I mean, I don’t think we are at that point, but the premise of the question that somehow he is constrained, I think, is an inaccurate one. I don’t think that they are seriously thinking in those terms. But I think it’s also quite interesting that you hear among, you know, U.S. officials, there is—you know, one hears a lot more discussion than one heard certainly during the Obama administration ever, the use of terms like preemption and preventive war. And how much of that is bluster and how much of that is signaling to North Korea, one doesn’t know.
I personally—and I spend a lot of time thinking about North Korea—I don’t know how one even can imagine doing something like a preemptive strike without losing Seoul. And if you talk about fighting them, you know, over there before we have to fight them over here, that means sacrificing Japan or South Korea.
To me, I don’t see any strategic, you know, solution to this. I don’t see a military solution to this. And I find it quite unimaginable. And one has to hope that that ultimately is what he is being counseled. But, you know, it’s a rather—it’s rather frightening if you think about it in military terms.
SCHMEMANN: And Arlene, could you just repeat the second part of your question again?
Q: Well, I was just curious as to whether there’d been any—that you’d heard of any response so far about reaction from the people at the U.N. about this somewhat blunt language. And really do we—you know, as to whether Trump may possibly have gone off script with that insertion of the rocket man and destroying North Korea. You know, as I say, I’m just curious as to what the immediate response was, if any of you have heard anything on that front?
SCHMEMANN: OK, Stewart, what have you heard?
PATRICK: I have not heard anything on that.
ROBBINS: Well, Bibi Netanyahu thought it was a fabulous speech. I mean, he said that when he got up. That’s what I’ve seen.
PATRICK: They liked the Iran part.
SCHMEMANN: Thanks. We’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Dave Clark with AFP.
Q: Hi. Thanks for doing this call. I was curious as to the contradiction between the approach to North Korea and the approach to the Iran deal. As it’s been explained to us by the State Department, the point of putting the sanctions pressure and the threat of military action on North Korea is convince them to come to the table to negotiate a denuclearization. But now, it seems to strongly suggest that he’s planning to tear up the Iran deal. Does it make it more difficult to convince people America is a good interlocutor for discussing nuclear disarmament deals if previous ones are going to be—are going to be torn up?
SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Dave. Stewart, how about you on the Iran deal, and then over to Carla after that?
PATRICK: Yes, I do think it—I do think that the North Koreans are obviously watching carefully to see how Iran is treated and, you know, what could be expected, were they ever in a position or a desire to give up their nuclear weapons. And I think it makes it—that makes it particularly imperative that the president, before reneging or abandoning or abrogating this agreement with the Iranians, actually be able not only to satisfy himself or believe this could pay political dividends, but actually be able to provide credible evidence that is based on technical assessments that Iran is actually cheating on this, and not abrogating it for some other motive. Because we already saw about, you know, 15 years ago what happened when—to the credibility of the United States when the U.S. behaves in a certain way on the basis of premises that turn out unfortunately to have been false.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Carla.
ROBBINS: So I mean, I don’t know the mind of the North Korean leader, but I would suspect that he is spending more time thinking about the fate of Saddam Hussain, who didn’t have nuclear weapons, than he’s thinking about the Iranians. And this is a regime survival issue for him. And yet, if the U.S. were to be the one to pull this deal apart, particularly, as Stewart said, without any proof—and the IAEA keeps insisting that the Iranians are keeping to the deal—that it would make the U.S. look like a very bad interlocutor and not credible interlocutor, and make it even less likely that these talks would have any chance of moving forward. But ultimately, I think that the historical precedent that they—that the North Koreans are watching closely are things like with Gadhafi, who gave up his nascent nuclear program or Saddam, who lost his nascent nuclear program. And we saw what happened to those regimes.
SCHMEMANN: All right. We’re ready for the next question.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. Our next question comes from Adrian Morrow with The Globe and Mail.
Q: Yes, hi. To what extent is this speech sort of playing to a domestic political audience, versus being sort of serious attempt to step out on the world stage? I know you alluded to this a little bit earlier with sort of trying to square his campaign commitments with this, you know, notion of multilateralism. And I’m just sort of wondering, do you get sense of kind of how much of this speech was really—you know, some of the stuff on trade deals obviously—how much of it was actually targeted, you know, more towards kind of, you know, shoring up a domestic constituency when a lot of things are kind of going wrong on the domestic front, versus actually sort of making a serious attempt at laying out foreign policy?
SCHMEMANN: Yeah, Stewart, who is he speaking to here?
PATRICK: Yes. I think that—you I know, I mentioned he was speaking to two constituencies. Obviously, the global audience who wanted to figure out how American first translated and all of this, and then, of course, to his America first audience. My sense is that the speech was largely written for his domestic audience in mind, but then there was an effort to try to shoehorn this notion of sovereignty into more of a—a more coherent explanation for what the United States is doing in the world. And I think that with respect to the domestic base, certainly the discussion of the need to build—the need to bring, in a sense, the United Nations to heel, the fact that the United States was associating itself with the reform agenda of the secretary general, the attacks on the human rights—excuse me—the Human Rights Council, the notion that there’s too much corruption and cronyism within the system, I think those will go down very well for his base.
At the same time, you know, this is a political winner for the president, I think, because it helps him domestically because he’s—you know, in the same way that he gave the argument that, look, other presidents have claimed they’re going to come and fix Washington and going to drain the swamp, you know, he’s a guy who his base will say if anybody can do it, it’s this guy.
On the other hand, you know, he did—as I mentioned, he did not blow up—he did not come to blow up the United Nations. And so I think that, probably through the influence of Nikki Haley and some others who basically managed to persuade him that there are an enormous amount of things that the United States does at the United Nations and gets out of the United Nations, including U.N. Security Council resolutions, that there has to be some basic support and expression of support for the U.N.’s founding principles.
So I think he managed to actually do that rather well. I think, you know, if he hadn’t been quite as blustery in some of the language that he uses—used—particularly with respect to North Korea, but also with respect to Iran, I think, you know, he might have gotten an even better reception up in New York.
But I see this as about as positive as one might have expected from this president, given the domestic political forces that are operating on him.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. We’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Anne Walters with the German Press Agency.
Q: Hi. The White House was characterizing this speech in advance as kind of the next step to follow his remarks in Saudi Arabia and Poland. And then I wonder if you thought that way as well and how he may have—how his thinking may have evolved over these three major foreign-policy speeches. Thanks.
SCHMEMANN: Thank you. Carla, do you see this as part of a narrative?
ROBBINS: I was thinking about that. And I know those speeches. Well, I’ll say this: That sort of consistent God reference, certainly in the Poland speech, which had a certain blood-and-soil content to it, you know, he’s sort of out and about in the international. I don’t see sort of a—I will defer to Stewart, who understands doctrine better than I do, but I don’t see this as—I don’t see it as either an evolving explanation here or either substantive policy. I mean, he has a vision of the world, certainly, and it is one that is very inward-looking and it is one that is laden with fear.
When he talks about things going to hell, when he was in Poland and he talked about the threats that came from the south and from the east, and the threats posed by refugees and terrorism and all of that, those, in many ways, were—the Poland speech was a much more fear-laden speech than this speech, in many ways a darker speech than this speech. This speech was a dark speech, but maybe I’m just proof to it because I’ve heard that before.
There were things in the speech that, as Stewart said, that sort of seemed more—in some ways more inclusive than those. I’m not saying it’s an inclusive speech, but I’m not arguing evolution; I’m just arguing that they’re trying—they’re trying to basically sort of justify campaign positions and fill it in with sort of what’s situational. So I don’t see any transcendent doctrine.
You know, a few points that I think are worth considering are what wasn’t in the speech that will be relevant to the times. There was no mention of climate, barely any—no mention at all of Russian meddling; barely any mention of human rights. I mean, he talked about the terrible things that are happening in Venezuela and then blamed it on socialism rather than (laa dictatorship. I mean, it was sort of like going back to the 1960s. You know, he—you know, these are things that a president—you know, those of us who covered UNGA over the years, you expect the president to go out there. He talked about migration and he didn’t talk about the Rohingya. I mean, these are these terrible human tragedies that are going on out there, things that should be on the top of a president’s rallying the international action.
On the other hand, he did say something that, you know, one would love to follow up and ask a question of the White House, which is when he talks about saluting the work of the United Nations, and talks about how the United States has been an enormous contributor to lead the world in humanitarian assistance—and talks about PEPFAR and AIDS relief and the malaria initiative and the Global Health Security Agenda and the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery, and the Women Entrepreneur’s financing initiative. Does this mean that this administration, which is slashing the State Department’s funding, or talking about slashing State Department funding, wants to slash, you know, it’s all—the president’s proposed budget. Are they suddenly going to restore financing on these things? Are they going to provide a lot more funding than they were originally talking about for the United Nations? He has called out these particular programs. I think we should all ask the administration if he’s going to increase his funding or at least stay with the base that it is right now for these programs.
PATRICK: Yeah, I absolutely agree. Yeah, I think that—there was a really in some ways odd section of the speech towards the end, where—which is really almost, you know, a poem to the nation-state. And are we still patriots? Do we have our nations—you know, do we—do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty? And, you know, he talked about patriotism and how it inspires the Poles over generations, and the French against the Nazis, and the Brits with respect to Brexit. And it’s this sort of a notion of—it’s a very sort of—there is a bit of blood and soil aspect of it, as there was in Poland as well in that speech, where, you know, this is natural human community, and no form of justice and no prosperity and no security can be gained unless each of these nations become fully fledged sovereign entities.
And so I felt like, what, you know, he’s going to form a new—a new international organization called the Nationalist Internationalist because, you know, you talk about a great awakening of nations, let this be our mission. And it’s quite extraordinary. And that is undoubtedly is the work, at least in part, of Stephen Miller. But you get echoes of Stephen Bannon in there too. But it does raise the question as to whether or not their—you know, there is anything within the United Nations in the conception of this president that is more than, in a sense, the sum of the nation-states that comprise it. In other words, is the United Nations a thing, is only, you know, a group of countries that comes together, coalesces as a—you know, in a coalitional form when it needs to get things done? Or are there certain things that—in which there’s a global interest that we all have to take—that we all have to be part of by this point?
And given how much the U.N. has grown over the years, although it’s still relatively small in terms—with respect to the U.S. budget—our—it would be interesting to see the rationales for while different parts of it should be cut and why others are absolutely essential for the United States to keep from the perspective of the administration.
ROBBINS: And to go back finally to the doctrine question for a moment, for there to be a doctrine one would—one would think there would be at least some consistency in the argument. And this is truly an inconsistent speech. I mean, he comes back on several occasions to the notion that the United States is being taken advantage of, which is, you know, the key to the Trump campaign. And we have heard it consistently throughout since he’s been elected. We hear that in the beginning, we’re not going to be taken advantage of. Implicitly on trade deals, we’re not going to be taken advantage of. Lower down probably the United States bears an unfair cost burden in the United Nations itself.
But just two paragraphs above that, he’s waxing lyrical about all of these fabulous contributions that the United States is making to these humanitarian funds itself. These are very inconsistent positions to hold. How does he justify this—you know, these two things? Are we being taken advantage of or are we a generous country? So for there to be a doctrine of his vision of the U.S. role in the world, or even the U.S. role in the United Nations, I don’t know how he reconciles these two things. We’re either being ripped off or we’re being generous. And he’s got both in there within a few paragraphs of each other.
SCHMEMANN: OK, thanks. Another question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Rachel Oswald with Congressional Quarterly.
Q: Hi. I would like to talk a little bit about the broader reform agenda that President Trump is pursuing and what do you think of how the details of that have evolved from some of the comments he was making as a candidate. Do you think that he is—for example, the House foreign aid bill this year would drastically cut funding to the United Nations, but it doesn’t sound like that is something that the president is currently pushing for in New York, despite his earlier budget request, which, you know, proposed deep cuts.
PATRICK: Yes, I think that in terms of the reform agenda, let me—there’s a couple of pieces with that. One is with respect to the drastic cuts that envisioned, you know, up to slashing of 30 percent, in some cases more than 50 percent of funding for specific U.N. agencies, and actually some zeroing out as well, I believe for UNICEF as well as the Climate Fund. Some of those things are going to be rescued by Congress. The Senate has already—in the Appropriations Committee has already restored a number of those cuts. The House is likely to come up with marks that are significantly less generous. But the final budget will be somewhere, certainly, in between what the president proposed and what the Republicans on Capitol Hill were defending, because they really were looking at more of a steady-state situation. But there is—there is an internal contradiction between this notion that the United States—that the United Nations is doing such great work, and not least in the humanitarian realm, when the United States is—at least the administration would like to cut humanitarian assistance at the time of the greatest displacement crisis in human history, or at least since the Second World War.
With respect to the reform agenda at the U.N., I think it is very savvy, and it was—that Nikki Haley had managed to engineer a close working relationship between the United States and Antonio Guterres. Now, the reform here—there are different versions of U.N. reform. We’re not talking about Security Council reform here, which some members would like to see, obviously. We’re talking about largely management and budgetary reform. And the centerpiece here, as the secretary-general has laid it out—and the United States has associated itself with—is basically giving the secretary-general all the authority he has under the Charter, and conceivably even some more pushing that so that he can ride herd on this Byzantine and, you know, noodle-bowl set of U.N. agencies. And if you look at—I defy you to look at the United Nations organizational chart, the official one that they put out, and believe that this organization can be handled in any coherent way.
And the difficulty with that effort to try to give the—give Mr. Guterres greater leeway in terms of bringing the administration to—the organization to heel is that most of the decisions, in terms of authorities and determining budgets and dealing with personnel problems, which are obviously some of the biggest issues within the U.N. system itself, are determined by the large membership organizations, bodies within the U.N. General Assembly or the U.N. Economic and Social Council. And those are dominated, at least in terms of numbers, by developing countries that are loath to give up their influence when the United States and the other big boys and girls have the Security Council. So this initial move and the initial ability of the United States to attract more than 120 countries for Monday’s event is only the first battle in a very long slog.
SCHMEMANN: Carla, any thoughts on the reform process or agenda?
ROBBINS: Well, I mean, I have a question more than—more than an answer here that I will ask Stewart, which is: How much of the challenge is going to come from smaller countries that are going to see this as a loss of sinecures and, you know—and bureaucratic power? And how much of it is going to come from within the U.N. bureaucracy itself? Because this seems like an aggregation of power for the secretary-general, but it also seems like cutting out a lot of power from middle management.
PATRICK: Yes, I think—I think it will come from both, and there will be some alliances between particular member states that, again—I mean, you know, as you know, much of the U.N. bureaucracy and personnel-management system is—much of it is middle managers, or it’s used by member states as a spoils system for political patronage and patronage of other types. And, you know, it’s almost impossible to hire and fire people based on meritocracy. I don’t want to paint with too broad a brush. There are some extraordinarily dedicated international civil servants up at the U.N. But they will bemoan just how incredibly hidebound it was. For those who are interested, they should check out, if they haven’t already seen it, Anthony Banbury’s scathing New York Times op-ed piece of last year, where he said that the systems designed in the U.N. bureaucracy looked like they were organized by a bunch of evil geniuses in a laboratory. (Laughter.)
SCHMEMANN: So it looks like we have time for maybe or two more questions. So, Operator, we’ll take the next question.
OPERATOR: Yes, ma’am. Our next question comes from Lyric Hale with EconVue.
Q: Yes. Hello. I’m with EconVue in Chicago.
And as a long-time China watcher, and also an Iran watcher, I have a different take that I’d like to ask you about. Focusing on sovereignty really I felt was a direct communication to the Chinese government, because their entire foreign policy apparatus is based on the principal of sovereignty. So I thought that this was a shout-out to China to say we share the same values. And if you think about audiences, which we were discussing, for this speech, the only other one that matters, other than the domestic audience, in terms of the clear and present danger to North Korea is China.
Also, from an economic point of view, not a lot of people, I think, realize that Iran and—China is Iran’s largest trading partner. And since the JCPA, trade between China and Iran has increased by about 31 percent. So that’s significant. So I also felt, from that point of view, that there was maybe an implied threat that the rest thing that we would look into would be Iran, and that would also impact China unless we work together on North Korea. So I’d like to get your reactions to my reaction. Thank you.
SCHMEMANN: Thanks, Lyric. Carla, why don’t you start off on China.
ROBBINS: I didn’t see that signaling in that to China, you know, as sort of an implicit deal that we’re not going to make judgements inside your borders, because I don’t think the Chinese particularly were worried about Trump making judgements about anything that was going on with their human rights behavior. The negotiation has always been over trade. And he’s been quite explicit, if you recall, over time—you know, treat us right on trade and we’ll do bad things to Taiwan. And then treat us right on trade and—you know, treat us right on North Korea and we’ll do good things to you on trade. You know, that’s been sort of—the negotiation has always been that. It’s never been on a domestic set of issues with the Chinese, as far as I can tell.
SCHMEMANN: I have the speech in front of me. And I just did a word search for China and Russia. And actually, the only appear once, when President Trump thanks them for joining the vote to impose sanctions.
ROBBINS: Right. And he takes us right—he has the implicit criticism on the notion of the South China Sea and on the sovereignty issue on Ukraine that’s then, and then on the trade issue on North Korea. So the swipes are there. They’re implicit. But there’s implicit, you know, notion of, you know, I’m concerned about human rights inside of China or human rights inside of Russia, which would be the—which would be the sovereignty issue, as far for both of those—of those governments.
SCHMEMANN: All right, we’ll take another question.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Garrett Mitchell with The Mitchell Report.
Q: Thanks very much. I want to—at the tail end of a long discussion, I want to try a thought experiment. And that is to imagine that instead of having the three of you sitting in the room we have Xi Jinping, Angela Merkel, and Prime Minister Abe. And the question that is being put to them, which they promise to answer honestly is essentially how did this speech affect your thinking about Donald Trump? Anything change?
SCHMEMANN: Right. I’d like to ask which of which is which, but Stewart, want to take a crack at that?
PATRICK: Sure. I would say that with respect to Mr. Xi—Premier Xi, I think that he will be pleased by it. I think that whether or not—I think whether that the sovereignty thing was a shout-out to China, it certainly resonates with China, Russia, India and a lot of other big powers that have been quite concerned about sovereignty. The lack of—we’re not going to tell other countries how to—how to live their lives, I think, will work very, very strongly.
With Angela Merkel, you know, I think she’ll still be disappointed that there wasn’t—that there wasn’t more of a full-throated embrace—I mean, not that you would have expected it—of, in a sense, what she’s come to be described as a leader of, and that is the Western liberal order. And, obviously, on trade she’ll be quite displeased with the continued sort of protectionist attitudes of the president. And also, just very little—very little discussion about or differentiation amongst the types of America’s allies and partners. There always used to be thought of as a core. That notion seems to be falling by the wayside.
And I would think that Mr. Abe might be a little—might be a little alarmed because I’m not sure that the statements made on North Korea would—were necessarily cleared through Tokyo. I would imagine they were not.
ROBBINS: I don’t—I’m not sure that any of them would be surprised by this speech because I think we’ve heard it all before, certainly read it all before in the Twitter feed. I think that most responsible leaders would like to see, you know, strong, consistent, responsible leadership from the United States. And the speech itself in many moments lacked dignity, and I think that would make most leaders—it wouldn’t surprise them, but I think it would not make them feel particularly comfortable about the world moving forward.
And yes, I think on the sovereignty issue itself, but I don’t think it’s a surprise to them. I don’t think that Xi thought that Donald Trump was going to be meddling inside his domestic politics at all. But I think it would make them queasy, and I’m sure that—I’m sure that Angela Merkel was very disappointed to find that—yet once again that Donald Trump has not embraced climate change.
SCHMEMANN: OK, perfect. With that, we will wrap up. My thanks to Stewart Patrick and Carla Robbins and to all of you. And once again, there are additional resources on the Council on Foreign Relations website, www.CFR.org, and we will post a transcript of this call as well. And just a shout-out to Stewart Patrick’s forthcoming book again, “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.” And do stay tuned to his blog, The Internationalist, which covers a lot of these issues. And we look forward to all of you joining on our next media call, so stay tuned. Thanks to everyone.