Even looking through the prism of other incendiary speeches delivered by other world leaders at the United Nations, it was remarkable to hear an American president address the General Assembly yesterday and threaten to “totally destroy” another nation.
That’s what Donald Trump promised the United States would do to North Korea if forced to defend itself or its allies against the rogue regime’s nuclear ambitions. But put aside the incongruity of such bellicose words delivered in an institution dedicated to peace. All Americans, whether inclined to automatically reject Trump’s proclamations or reflexively embrace them, should cast aside their preconceptions and ask themselves: Was he wrong?
Certainly, Trump’s language, including his “Rocket Man” taunt of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, was startling. But other more genteel presidents have not dissuaded a succession of North Korean leaders from pursuing nuclear weapons. And Trump did voice support for a more conventional route, praising the UN for recently imposing more sanctions, thanking China and Russia for joining that action, and arguing that all nations must cooperate to do more to isolate North Korea.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to project toughness, trying to out-bully a bully is risky business. But we simply don’t understand enough about the state of play to know whether Trump’s threat was unwise. We don’t know what actions are planned, under way or already taken, in the military or cyber arenas. We do know that one real danger is that after it perfects its nuclear and missile technology, impoverished North Korea might try to sell it to other rogue states or independent actors. That is truly scary. It clearly is in our nation’s and the world’s interest to stop that from happening.
More concerning in Trump’s speech was the expansion of his foreign policy doctrine. We’re not talking about the eerie echo of his dark inaugural address eight months ago, the American carnage of that speech now writ large. Trump’s depiction of peril everywhere and some places “going to hell” was distressingly dark but wrong only in degree. The world does have problems.
But Trump’s solution is for every nation to replicate his “America first” mantra. Put your own countries first and make yourselves as strong as possible, Trump told world leaders, conjuring images of many walls erected on many borders. His prescription ignores the fact that countries are not equally blessed in natural resources, geography or economic power, and that strength for them may only be achieved only by working with other countries. And it fails to recognize the dangers of unfettered nationalism, of countries acting belligerently with the justification that it’s in their best interests, of the ease with which people can be divided into us and them.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres anticipated Trump’s address, opening the General Assembly by stressing the need for stronger international cooperation, saying that, “Trust within and among countries is being driven down by those who demonize and divide.”
His, too, was a distinctly American message: E pluribus unum. There is more strength in unity than in going it alone.