President Donald Trump told world leaders on Tuesday that the United States would always put its interests above theirs, adhering to a principle of sovereignty in the face of increasing “globalism.”
The rest of the world responded with laughter, frowns and a collective shrug.
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The U.S. president’s second address to the United Nations General Assembly was designed to emphasize Trump’s continued commitment to his “America first” ideals. He urged other countries to pursue their own unique visions, insisting that that would ultimately lead to more a coherent world order.
“We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism around the world,” the Republican president said. “Responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty. And not just from global governments, but from other newer forms of coercion and domination.”
The reaction from the crowd was striking in underscoring Trump — and America’s — increasing isolation on the world stage. The president drew guffaws at the start when he boasted about his administration’s accomplishments and barely any applause beyond a polite round at the end. Later, when Trump blasted Germany over an energy pipeline to Russia, cameras caught the German representatives smirking.
It was a striking moment for a president who ran for office complaining that the rest of the world was laughing at America. Still, there’s no question the details of Trump’s speech will be combed in the coming days for tidbits about where U.S. policy is heading on a number of fronts.
Trump arrived late for his speech — Ecuador’s president took his time slot instead — and began by first bragging about his administration’s accomplishments, declaring that “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Laughter rose up from the crowd at the claim.
“It’s true,” said Trump, adding: “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay.”
Even as he expounded on the merits of national sovereignty throughout the address, Trump nonetheless made it clear that the United States will not tolerate the behavior of certain other governments.
As many expected, Trump slammed “the corrupt dictatorship in Iran.”
“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction,” he said as an Iranian diplomat watched, stone-faced. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”
Iran’s Islamist regime, which has faced protests from its citizens over the past year, claims that by supporting proxy militias and sending its own troops to places like Syria and Yemen, it is protecting and advancing its own national interest in a volatile Middle East.
Trump also defended his decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal — in which Tehran agreed to scale back its nuclear program in exchange for economic sanctions relief — urging other countries to cut their purchases of Iranian oil and help enforce renewed penalties on the country.
Ahead of Trump’s speech, however, the other parties to the 2015 deal — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China — announced they’d agreed to set up a special payment system to allow companies doing business in Iran to circumvent the recently re-imposed U.S. sanctions.
Last year, Trump used parts of his speech to the General Assembly to severely criticize North Korea and its nuclear program. He belittled North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un as “Rocket Man,” warning Kim that the United States could destroy his country if it had to.
On Tuesday, however, Trump took a far more measured tone toward Pyongyang, noting that the two countries were pursuing nuclear talks and that he and Kim had met face to face in a historic summit. He spoke of “Chairman Kim” and thanked the North Korean leader “for his courage.”
Trump insisted there has been great progress made in the U.S.-North Korea discussions, but said the U.S. would not lift sanctions on Pyongyang unless it did more to denuclearize.
Trump also hit the theme of national sovereignty in his speech last year. But this year’s version contained some more specific complaints and warnings.
He announced that the U.S. would be revamping its approach to foreign aid.
“Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” Trump said, implying that countries who pursued interests at odds with those of the U.S. could be cut off.
He trumpeted his administration’s recent move to withdraw from the United Nations Human Rights Council, a global body that investigates and brings attention to human rights abuses.
Trump called the council a “grave embarrassment to this institution” that was “shielding egregious human rights abuses while bashing America and its many friends.”
And Trump reiterated the White House’s stance that it will not engage with the International Criminal Court, an intergovernmental group with “no jurisdiction, no legitimacy and no authority” that he cast as a threat to U.S. sovereignty.
The ICC began operations in 2002, set up with the intent of prosecuting international crimes such as genocide. But Trump on Tuesday blasted the institution for claiming “near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness and due process.
Separately, Trump chastised the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries for what he claimed were inflated oil prices.
The 15 OPEC nations — mostly located in the Middle East and Africa — are “ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it,” Trump said. “We defend many of these nations for nothing, and then they take advantage of us by giving us high oil prices. Not good.”
“They must contribute substantially to military protection from now on,” he added. “We are not going to put up with it, these horrible prices, much longer.”
In addition to denouncing international bodies, Trump expressed antipathy for the international trade order.
“The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer,” Trump said, blaming other countries for inappropriate trade practices. “We will not allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred.”
Trump defended his ongoing use of tariffs against China — which has sparked a trade war between the world’s two largest economies — even as he said he had “great respect and affection” for Chinese leader Xi Jinping.
On Russia, Trump said little except in the context of energy. He warned against pipeline projects in Europe that could benefit Moscow, including making a reference to the German pipeline that drew smiles from the country’s representatives.
“Germany will become totally dependent on Russian energy if it does not immediately change course,” he insisted.
Trump had some choice words for Venezuela, which is struggling with hyperinflation and shortages of food and medicine, sparking a major refugee crisis in Latin America. Trump blamed the economic crisis on socialist policies.
“All nations of the world should resist socialism and the misery that it brings to everyone. In that spirit, we ask the nations gathered here to join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela,” Trump said.
Earlier in his address, however, Trump also appeared to endorse a policy of non-interference.
“I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions,” he said. “The United States will not tell you how to live, or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”