Fake news alert: President Donald Trump said something vaguely positive about the United Nations during his speech marking the opening of this year’s General Assembly session.
“God bless you all. God bless America. And God bless the United Nations,” Trump intoned on Sept. 22. Comically, the world body may justifiably be relieved, having braced for a stream of insults and perhaps even an announcement that Washington would pull out of the UN after regularly belittling it for, hmmm, three and a half years.
For the three previous opening sessions, Trump traveled to New York City to at least make an appearance. But this year, with the wily coronavirus casting its deadly shadow over large public gatherings, he followed the lead of other world leaders and stayed home. The UN had encouraged heads of state and government to send pre-recorded statements instead.
Trump’s speech, while viewed by a token audience in the General Assembly Hall, was recorded the day before as he stood behind a podium at the White House. And it sounded as if it could have been written by a robot — granted, a mendacious robot — hitting most of the same themes Trump does most days.
The president, after all, has a reputation to keep up. In September 2018, you might recall, he drew laughter from the assembled diplomats after boasting that “in less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
For Trump, it was only confirmation of his longtime suspicion that the world viewed the United States with scorn — not because of his track record but because of his predecessors’. “The world is laughing at us,” he said in May 2016, one of the 59 times he said those words to that effect between 2011 and this week.
He had naturally expected to end the mockery through the sheer brilliance of his own leadership. Instead, world leaders started laughing since 2016 and haven’t stopped laughing since.
So this year Trump came off as if he had finally given up trying to change people’s minds. He devoted just seven minutes to his General Assembly address on Tuesday, delivering it in a monotone, or as a headline in Slate put it, “The president is done pretending he cares.”
Trump views his foreign policy achievements as unparalleled, as does his cabinet. “I’m not surprised he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Fox News on Sept. 10.
To get a sense of how the president sees himself, we can rely on the Twitter feed of his press secretary, Kayleigh McEnany:
“In the past 30 days, President @realDonaldTrump has brokered a series of historic agreements:
• Israel-UAE peace
• Israel-Bahrain peace
• Serbia-Kosovo economic normalization
America remains an indispensable leader on the world stage!”
Sadly, the White House no longer plays the essential role in world diplomacy it assumed after World War II. With the self-proclaimed “stable genius” in charge, America’s oldest and most important allies constantly question whether they can rely on Washington in a pinch and increasingly chart plans and policies on their own, especially in Europe.
Friend and foe alike view Trump as unpredictable and oblivious to their concerns, and they are tired of being muscled by his heavy reliance on tariffs and sanctions. They understand that Trump is being driven, above all, by his desire for re-election rather than by a passion to put “America first,” as he claims, which makes it easier for them to pretend not to hear when Washington expresses irritation or wants a favor.
As a result, views of America around the world have sunk to new lows, according to a recent Pew Research poll. Significantly, the survey of 13 nations found extensive criticism of Washington’s handling of Covid-19, while nearly three-quarters of those polled said their own governments had done a good job handling the crisis.
US ratings were far lower than those for the World Health Organization, which the Trump administration has dubbed “corrupt,” and China, the epicenter of the first outbreak, which Trump maintains “sent us the plague.”
In fairness, Trump’s two Middle East recognition deals and the Serbia-Kosovo agreement are important achievements. But to be clear, the Serbia-Kosovo accord, while reached between longtime enemies, is a pact for limited future economic cooperation rather than a “peace deal,” as Trump insisted in his General Assembly speech. It is the European Union rather than the US that leads the more challenging international effort to shepherd Kosovo and Serbia toward peace.
The agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Israel and Bahrain are also not peace deals. Both Arab nations have been quietly getting along with Israel for some time now, and the new accords simply underscore that. They may even make a Middle East conflict more likely in the near future, as both the Emirates and Bahrain are key members of Trump’s campaign to break the back of Iran, which regularly flirts with violent confrontation. And they are clearing a path for Trump to sell F-35 fighter planes to the Emirates despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s initial concerns that the highly sophisticated aircraft could threaten his country’s military abilities in the region.
Put these three agreements aside and what is left of Trump’s boasts of diplomatic mastery? Mostly a string of foreign policy disasters that could trouble US interests for a long time to come.
My personal choices for the most catastrophic, keeping me awake at night:
• Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 agreement aimed at preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons. He has since waged an all-out campaign to either persuade Iran to sign a tougher deal, lure it into an armed conflict or trigger a regime change in Tehran. Or maybe it’s meant to antagonize the UN Security Council or win more votes from anti-Muslim Americans in the Nov. 3 presidential election. It’s hard to pin down his actual goals. Iran was fully complying with the Obama-era pact, but Trump has driven a stake through it and has yet to obtain anything in return apart from increased regional instability.
• The US withdrawal from the World Health Organization in the middle of a global plague. Trump ostensibly did this to punish the WHO for allowing China to play a major role in its Covid-19 policy-making early in the pandemic. The US move is impeding development of effective Covid-19 treatments, undermining the global response to the disease, leaving the world more vulnerable to future pandemics and formalizing Washington’s indifference to people in the developing world.
• The decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change. This is one of the most popular international accords ever, bringing together 195 nations as signers and 189 as parties to the pact. Remaining a part of the deal would have cost the US nothing apart from a nonbinding pledge to pursue whatever it chose to do to slow global warming.
• Mounting an incompetently conceived and miserably executed high-pressure campaign to persuade North Korea to eliminate all of its nuclear abilities. Trump started out gratuitously insulting Kim Jong Un while demanding rapid acceptance of all US demands, and gained nothing but the North Korean leader’s disgust while bringing the US dangerously close to war. By later changing direction, seeking to flatter the North Korean leader into negotiations while failing to set out clear objectives, he threw away the entire game. After exchanging “beautiful letters,” Trump sighed, “we fell in love.” This cleared the way for Kim to build more missiles and atomic bombs while giving Trump absolutely nothing.
• Pulling out of the UN Human Rights Council. In withdrawing from the Council, the world’s most important human-rights body, the Trump administration in 2018 denounced it as hypocritical and self-serving and accused it of systematic bias against Israel. What it did not say was that leaving the Council constituted an admission of its own poor diplomatic skills — namely Nikki Haley’s. By failing to continue working from the inside, Trump showed his lack of concern for all those deprived of their rights in the future. The happiness of Israel, while an important US ally, should not be the exclusive measure of the usefulness of US policy.
• Waging a comically executed propaganda war against China. Trump has unleashed a torrent of infantile insults at Beijing to try to counter its growing international assertiveness. At the same time, he has been attempting to wrap up a trade agreement with the country. Within three days in August 2019, Trump could be heard attacking Chinese President Xi Jinping as an “enemy,” a “brilliant leader” and a “great man.” His insults have utterly failed to knock China’s adventurism off track. But the personal attacks have slowed all other international efforts to engage Beijing in constructive diplomacy.
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Irwin Arieff is a veteran writer and editor with extensive experience writing about international diplomacy and food, cooking and restaurants. Before leaving daily journalism in 2007, he was a Reuters correspondent for 23 years, serving in senior posts in Washington, Paris and New York as well as at the United Nations (where he covered five of the 10 years that Sergey Lavrov spent in New York as Russia’s senior UN ambassador). Arieff also wrote restaurant reviews for The Washington Post and Washington City Paper in the 1980s and 1990s with his wife, Deborah Baldwin.