World

US: Elton Don* goes to the UN. Attacks enemies. Tweets.

Now that US President Donald Trump has delivered his first address to the UN General Assembly’s autumnal opening in New York City, J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes a look at the rhetoric and reality of this speech.

* Thank you, The Atlantic.

It is virtually impossible to imagine a more astonishing (Appalling? Bizarre? Ridiculous? Wild-eyed?) performance as a speaker, live on television before the entire world, than that of President Donald Trump on 19 September at the opening plenary session of the UN General Assembly. That is, unless you recall or read about Nikita Khrushchev’s shoe banging episode as part of his rising to a point of order in that same room, when his country was criticised by the Philippine representative back in 1960.

Photo: Rex Tillerson, United States Secretary of State, listens to US President Donald J. Trump address the audience during the opening of the General Debate of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at at UN headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 19 September 2017. EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

Now, put aside the boasts by Trump about his nation’s economic and military strength, or its sturdy national character. Such chest-thumping rhetoric is actually pretty usual in these speeches. Why, after all, would a national leader stand in front of the whole world and then choose to rail about his or her nation’s inherent deficiencies? While Trump’s language choices and his Queens, New York City-style bray can grate upon his listeners’ ears, all of that can be discounted rather easily. That’s just style, Trumpian style.

But much more troubling, of course, were Donald Trump’s flights of bombast directed specifically towards North Korea, Iran, Venezuela and Cuba. There were no substantive comments about any errant behaviour by Russia in Ukraine. Its current massive military exercise in Belarus is reportedly using as much as 10 times as many troops as international agreements allow. (Any exercises involving more than 12,000 personnel must allow for military observers from Nato). Nor was there comment on Russia’s deep, troubling involvement in the US 2016 election.

This list from Donald Trump of countries to be knocked around was actually a pretty predictable roster of international bad boys, from the perspective of the US. It is, after all, a rare American (and, increasingly anybody else) who will rise up and defend Maduro’s Venezuela and its mendacious, self-destructive economic policies, or its increasing slide into a harsh and increasingly despotic left-wing authoritarianism.

While most Americans are repelled by Cuban authoritarianism, by the same token, a clear majority of the nation (including Cuban-Americans and the US business community) have come to the conclusion that a US-Cuban relationship rapprochement is appropriate, timely, and useful. The Trumpian rant against Cuba seems to be – at its heart – something of a domestic play to keep his core supporters feeling he still has their back. Or something. It still seems unlikely he will roll back the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two nations, despite muttered threats.

But then we get to North Korea and Iran – special objects of fury in the Trumpian universe. By the time Trump was finished with his discussion of North Korea, he had significantly advanced the play from threatening retaliation for direct, immediate threats or actual attacks on American soil (such as the island of Guam) or against US East Asian allies such as South Korea and Japan.

Now the policy, if Trump’s words can be believed, is the annihilation of North Korea if its similarly wacky leader does anything dangerous. As Trump said on Tuesday, “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.

No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the well-being of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.

We were all witness to the regime’s deadly abuse when an innocent American college student, Otto Warmbier, was returned to America only to die a few days later. We saw it in the assassination of the dictator’s brother using banned nerve agents in an international airport. We know it kidnapped a sweet 13-year-old Japanese girl from a beach in her own country to enslave her as a language tutor for North Korea’s spies.

If this is not twisted enough, now North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life.

It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply, and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict. No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles.

The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. [Italics added.]

That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.

It is time for North Korea to realise that the denuclearisation is its only acceptable future. The United Nations Security Council recently held two unanimous 15-0 votes adopting hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea, and I want to thank China and Russia for joining the vote to impose sanctions, along with all of the other members of the Security Council. Thank you to all involved.

But we must do much more. It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behaviour.”

If one were to take Trump’s chest-thumping literally, viewers and listeners had just heard the US president threaten to obliterate an entire nation. Cue in the sounds of a low, sustained whistle right about there. By comparison, even in the depths of World War II, it was impossible to find a statement from President Franklin Roosevelt threatening to eliminate the entirety of the German or Japanese nation as part of that global war.

From North Korea, it was just a quick pivot to Iran. To that nation’s leaders, Trump said, “The Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy. It has turned a wealthy country with a rich history and culture into an economically depleted rogue state whose chief exports are violence, bloodshed, and chaos. The longest-suffering victims of Iran’s leaders are, in fact, its own people.

Rather than use its resources to improve Iranian lives, its oil profits go to fund Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims and attack their peaceful Arab and Israeli neighbours. This wealth, which rightly belongs to Iran’s people, also goes to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, fuel Yemen’s civil war, and undermine peace throughout the entire Middle East.

We cannot let a murderous regime continue these destabilising activities while building dangerous missiles, and we cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear programme. The Iran Deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into. Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it – believe me. [Italics added]

It is time for the entire world to join us in demanding that Iran’s government end its pursuit of death and destruction. It is time for the regime to free all Americans and citizens of other nations that they have unjustly detained. And above all, Iran’s government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people, and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbours.

The entire world understands that the good people of Iran want change, and, other than the vast military power of the United States, that Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most. This is what causes the regime to restrict internet access, tear down satellite dishes, shoot unarmed student protesters, and imprison political reformers.

Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever, and the day will come when the Iranian people will face a choice. Will they continue down the path of poverty, bloodshed, and terror? Or will the Iranian people return to the nation’s proud roots as a centre of civilisation, culture, and wealth where their people can be happy and prosperous once again?

The Iranian regime’s support for terror is in stark contrast to the recent commitments of many of its neighbours to fight terrorism and halt its financing.”

The problem, of course, is that Trump’s grievance with Iran is seemingly about a putative traducing of the P5+1 nuclear accord that puts the brakes on Iran’s drive towards nuclearisation, something Trump has frequently lambasted as an agreement existentially dangerous to American national security and that of its allies in the region. But the real heart of his complaint is Iran’s reported support for groups like Hezbollah in Syria and Gaza – issues that do not figure in the P5+1 agreement. Just by the way, speaking on Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani presented his nation as strictly adhering to the P5+1 agreement and proposing that accord as a model for other, similar global problems. (Kim Jong-un – were you listening to Rouhani?)

Other moments in his speech berated the UN for being an inefficient, bloated bureaucracy that gobbles up America’s contribution to the world body’s budget – some 22% of the total global contributions. This, of course, is not something only Trump has complained about. You can even find UN officials who have the same lament.

But Trump was just as scathing about the idea of an international common good. Instead, Trump’s measure of international progress, success, and appropriateness was his strong endorsement of “America First”, now translated into the pre-eminence of national sovereignty universally, and thus a reaffirmation of the Westphalian world that came into being post-1648. This position by Trump was in contrast to any appreciation for the possibilities and potential successes of global co-operation and the retreat of individual sovereignties by the world’s nearly 200 nation states.

Such a position was, after all, implicit in the establishment of the UN back in 1945, even if it does not come up in the specifics of the body’s Charter. Lurking in the Trumpian interpretation, the national sovereignties of 200 nations would largely preclude any outside criticism of domestic human rights abuses, or even, perhaps, genocidal behaviour on the part of a ruler – as long as such things do not reach beyond national borders. Not pretty.

As Trump said on this occasion, “To overcome the perils of the present and to achieve the promise of the future, we must begin with the wisdom of the past. Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. [Italics added]

We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for co-operation and success.

Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.

Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny. And strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.

“… In foreign affairs, we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens – to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values. As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first. [Italics added]

All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”

While listeners could easily be carried along (or frightened into hiding) by the rhetorical textures in Trump’s speech, it did, in fact, represent a subtle shift in some of Trump’s foreign policy values – away from the rowdy populist nationalism and near-isolationism of his campaign and early presidential months – and towards a recapitulation of more traditional Republican conservative values and policies. Inevitably, however, the rhetorical overdrive that pervaded his speech will be what is truly remembered; that, and the parodies of Elton John’s song lyrics of Rocket Man that are now threatening to overwhelm the social media space.

There is yet another likely outcome. Given that eye-rolling over-the-top-ness of Trump’s speech, combined with all his other rhetorical excesses elsewhere, and his continuing spit ball contest with Kim Jong-un, the US president is now running the risk of having anything he says being discounted as just so much more of that usual wild language. But words can have consequences, and words can worsen international tensions. One look at the image of Trump’s new Chief of Staff, retired Marine General John Kelly, head in his hands, captured as the president vented, should be enough to remind that words can send things spinning out of control. DM

Photo: US President Donald J. Trump addresses the audience during the opening of the General Debate of the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at at UN headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 19 September 2017. The annual gathering of world leaders formally opens 19 September 2017, with the theme, ‘Focusing on People: Striving for Peace and a Decent Life for All on a Sustainable Planet.’ EPA-EFE/PETER FOLEY

Rocket-Man, by Elton John and Bernie Taupin

She packed my bags last night, pre-flight
Zero hour: 9am
And I’m gonna be high as a kite by then
I miss the Earth so much, I miss my wife
It’s lonely out in space
On such a timeless flight

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Til touchdown brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home

Oh no, no, no! I’m a rocket man
Rocket man!
Burning out his fuse up here alone
And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Til touchdown brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home

Oh no, no, no! I’m a rocket man
Rocket man!
Burning out his fuse up here alone

Mars ain’t the kind of place to raise your kids
In fact, it’s cold as hell
And there’s no one there to raise them if you did
And all this science I don’t understand
It’s just my job five days a week

Rocket man! Rocket man!

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time
Til touchdown brings me round again to find
I’m not the man they think I am at home

Oh no, no, no! I’m a rocket man
Rocket man!
Burning out his fuse up here alone

And I think it’s gonna be a long, long time

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