It might be remembered as the moment when the world’s response to the Trump threat shifted from paralytic horror to dismissive laughter.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York Tuesday morning contained many of the elements that left the free world aghast in 2017: Promises to tear up crucial international climate, trade and nuclear-peace agreements; threats of war (against Iran this time, but not North Korea); kind words for strongmen and dictators with little but scorn for the democratic world.
This time, however, the response from many of the other 100-plus world leaders present was laughter and ridicule. Mr. Trump opened his address with a flourish of characteristically ludicrous braggadocio (“My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country”), cut short by very audible peals of laughter from the heads of state and government gathered in the General Assembly.
Mr. Trump reacted with visible discomfort – “Didn’t expect that reaction,” he muttered to the audience. After all, over the past decade he has frequently denounced the Obama administration’s policies by declaring, in speeches and tweets, that “the world is laughing at us.” For the first time, it really was, at the highest level, and directly to his face.
One was reminded of Franz Kafka’s description of the type of person whose “ludicrous aspect” inspires uncontrollable laughter among otherwise serious listeners: “an individual in the public eye whose lofty position is not solely a function of his own accomplishments.”
The laughter was more than an incidental backdrop to more serious issues. It represented, in a way, an emerging global response to Mr. Trump’s angry unilateralism.
While many countries remain threatened by Mr. Trump’s isolationist, unco-operative United States, at this point they have effectively priced Mr. Trump into his country’s share price – and the rest of the UN membership spent the remainder of the day trying to devise a world order that can function without the United States.
In the core of his speech, Mr. Trump denounced international co-operation on peace, disarmament and environmental protection as an intolerable manifestation of “unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” as a set of “threats to sovereignty” from “global governance.”
In his key sentence, a declaration with overtones rooted in the 1930s that seemed to have been penned by one of his advisers on the extreme right, Mr. Trump intoned: “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the ideology of patriotism.”
This sort of ultra-nationalist, isolationist rhetoric is nothing new to the UN General Assembly: Although the United Nations was created, in the aftermath of the Second World War, to prevent such ideas from rising to dominance again, many leaders, both democratic and authoritarian, have used the assembly to lash out at perceived conspiracies and plots directed by the world community. Leaders of the far left and far right have denounced “globalism.” The shock of such words coming from the mouth of a U.S. president was new and palpable in 2017, but by now they have become a familiar, if disquieting, piece of performance art.
Nor is Mr. Trump the first U.S. president to approach the General Assembly with outspoken disdain: Both Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush began their terms in office with scornful and dismissive attitudes toward the international community, which they saw, and expressed in General Assembly addresses, as antithetical to conservative U.S. interests (both presidents, however, ended their eight-year terms with changed attitudes, delivering supportive and warmhearted farewell addresses to the assembly, embracing the UN system).
The worry among democratic leaders on Tuesday morning was not that Mr. Trump had turned against them, but that he might succeed in creating a united bloc among like-minded isolationists and ultra-nationalists. His speech pointedly named the countries he considers friends – Poland, Saudi Arabia, India and (for the moment) North Korea – while saying nothing good about any Western democracies and explicitly denouncing Germany (for relying on Russian petroleum).
What has changed, since Mr. Trump first articulated his pessimistic doctrine in 2017, is the world’s response. Aside from the laughter, much of the day was devoted to other major-country leaders outlining an alternative way of conducting international business – presumably without requiring U.S. involvement.
“I deeply believe in the sovereignty of people” – not of national governments, French President Emmanuel Macron began in a very well-received speech. “In the 21st century, we should only triumph through bolstered multilateralism.”
Mr. Macron drew a sharp line between the Trump image of a global conspiracy and the sort of co-operation that attempts to solve grave international problems: “My point is, I don’t believe in generalized or empty globalization … I believe in universal values. Those are two different things. Here today, even [among] those who might criticize it, we have all benefited from the way global order is structured around globalization.”
That remark was met, by most of the other leaders, with a lengthy ovation.