Trailed by the Russia investigation, back-stabbing within his administration, looming midterm elections and Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s troubled nomination, President Trump arrived this week in New York distracted and under siege. At first blush, Mr. Trump’s second appearance at the United Nations General Assembly may have seemed like more self-congratulatory bluster, nationalist isolationism and rote genuflection to the altar of sovereignty — much like last year. But this time, Americans suffered the added humiliation of watching the world burst out laughing at their president, whose false bravado no longer induces shock but invites derision.
Given this drama, it’s easy to mistake Mr. Trump’s visit for a mash-up of meetings and muddled messages. But careful observers should not be diverted from discerning the president’s real purpose at the United Nations, because it is ominous.
On four critical policy fronts, President Trump foreshadowed his intention to ignore our greatest threats and to stoke fresh conflict where it is neither necessary nor wise. More telling than his rabidly ideological speech to the General Assembly was the president’s more substantive remarks before the Security Council on Wednesday. And by now we have ample reason to conclude that Mr. Trump generally means what he says and (eventually) does much of what he threatens.
First, President Trump doubled down on his determination to exonerate Russia and minimize the serious threat that it poses to us and our allies. In a Security Council session devoted to the preventing the proliferation of chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Mr. Trump ignored Russia’s recent attack with a deadly nerve agent that severely sickened four people in Britain and may have killed one other. He neglected to name Russia as the principal violator of United Nations sanctions on North Korea. And he failed to condemn Russia’s repeated lies to cover for Syria’s use of chemical weapons.
Not once in a visit whose central theme was American sovereignty did Mr. Trump mention Russia’s extraordinary and continuing interference in our democratic process. For reasons we can only hope will soon become clear, President Trump remains determined to coddle our most dangerous adversary, to the increasing detriment of our national security.
Second, President Trump persisted in fueling the false impression that he has effectively addressed the grave threat from North Korea. Granted, the reduction in tensions between North and South Korea and Mr. Trump’s dialogue with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader, are preferable to “fire and fury.” While the North’s moratorium on missile and nuclear tests is a necessary first step, we are no closer to the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea than this time last year.
In fact, while President Trump praises Mr. Kim’s courage and declares his fondness for his newest murderous dictator friend, the North is driving wedges between the United States and our regional allies, while playing for time with an administration in Washington that seems equally content to run out the clock, if it can sustain the illusion of progress.
Third, President Trump just escalated the crisis with China from the economic to the political and security realm. Without offering a shred of evidence, Mr. Trump accused China in the Security Council chamber of attempting to interfere in the 2018 midterm election “against my administration.” He elaborated, “They do not want me or us to win because I am the first president ever to challenge China on trade.”
It’s a shocking charge that aims to equate China with Russia, whose proven election meddling was not mentioned by the president, and to stoke anti-Chinese hostility within the Republican base, thereby establishing an excuse if the party fails to hold the House and even the Senate. The Trump administration consistently underestimates China, and seemingly assumes China’s willingness to take such public vilification lying down. But, the risk just rose measurably this week that the trade war with China will transform into a wider economic or even more damaging conflict.
Finally, the Trump administration loudly reiterated its resolve to crush Iran economically and, potentially, militarily. In May, under the dishonest pretext of preventing Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Mr. Trump withdrew from “the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal” that had ensured just that. This week, he vowed to increase sanctions on Iran, warning that “any individual or entity who fails to comply with these sanctions will face severe consequences.”
The national security adviser, John Bolton, raised the ante, directly targeting our closest allies: “We do not intend to allow our sanctions to be evaded by Europe or anybody else.” Mr. Bolton warned Iran that, “If you cross us, our allies, or our partners; if you harm our citizens; if you continue to lie, cheat and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.” He added, “We are watching, and we will come after you.”
This intensified saber rattling against Iran presages the prospect of war in the Persian Gulf, should President Trump determine he needs a greater distraction than he can generate in a day’s work on Twitter.
Mr. Trump’s trip to the United Nations this week set America on an ever more dangerous course in which we are courting conflict with powerful countries that don’t seek it and ignoring persistent threats from committed adversaries with the will and capacity to do us grave harm. In these troubling times, up is down, black is white and America stands alone, reckless and ridiculed, among the nations of the world.
Susan E. Rice (@AmbassadorRice), the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and a former United States ambassador to the United Nations, is a contributing opinion writer.