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‘America First' at the UN
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 21 - 09 - 2017

US President Donald Trump disappointed world leaders as he used his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly since taking office in January to confirm his commitment to his slogan of “America First” and to wage sharp verbal attacks against his country's perceived enemies: North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.
Hardly receiving any applause from the representatives of the 193 member states of the UN as he addressed the 72nd session of the organisation's General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump warned that the US would “totally destroy North Korea” if forced to defend itself or its allies.
“The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea,” Trump said during his first address to the General Assembly. “It is time for North Korea to realise that its denuclearisation is its only responsible future,” Trump said.
Trump also warned that Kim Jong-un, whom he again referred to as “rocket man”, was “on a suicide mission for himself”. Trump's strong words came after he made the case that North Korea was a “country that imperils the world” and said that it was in no country's interest for North Korea to continue on its current path of nuclear and ballistic missile development.
He also offered strong words for countries that trade with and finance North Korea. “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a nation but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world,” Trump said.
Although Trump's speech came shortly after that of UN Secretary-General António Guterres at the General Assembly meeting, he obviously had not listened to its content. Guterres had condemned the recent nuclear tests carried out by North Korea, but he had also warned of the consequences of “fiery talk”.
‘America First' at the UN
The UN chief, also delivering his first speech since taking his position earlier this year, said that “when tensions rise, so does the chance of miscalculation. Fiery talk can lead to fatal misunderstandings. The solution must be political. This is a time for statesmanship. We must not sleepwalk our way into war.”
Trump also suggested on Tuesday that he plans to scrap the Iran nuclear deal with the West, saying it was a mistake to enter into the agreement at all. “The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions,” Trump said.
“That deal is an embarrassment to the US, and I don't think you've heard the last of it, believe me,” Trump said, a sign he is preparing to weaken the deal. Countering Trump's words, French President Emmanuel Macron later gave a clear warning that ending the Iran nuclear agreement would be a “grave error” after Trump again denounced the seven-nation deal.
“To reject it now without proposing anything else would be a grave error and not respecting it would be irresponsible,” Macron said in his address to the UN General Assembly.
Trump faces a mid-October deadline for re-certifying Iran's compliance with the agreement. Were he to abandon the seven-nation deal agreed in 2015, he would have to deal with the consequences. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani's words stated: “After such a possible scenario, which country would be willing to sit across a table from the United States of America and talk about international issues,” he asked.
“The greatest capital that any country has is trust and credibility,” Rouhani said, declaring that annulling the deal would mean that “Iran could resume its previous nuclear activities, which it has always insisted were solely to meet its energy needs.”
For his part, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose address followed Trump's speech, was seen nodding his head and smiling happily as the US president lashed out at the regime in Tehran.
When the time came for him to deliver his speech, Netanyahu unsurprisingly lashed out at Iran, warning of the growth of a “vast Islamist Iranian empire” if the Iranian nuclear deal was not “fixed or nixed”.
Alternating between English, Hebrew and Farsi, Netanyahu argued that there was no difference between Iran and North Korea. “There are those who still defend the dangerous [Iran nuclear] deal, arguing that it will block Iran's path to the bomb. That's exactly what they said about the nuclear deal with North Korea, and we all know how that turned out. If nothing changes, this deal will turn out exactly the same way,” he said.
He vowed to prevent Iran from gaining a foothold in Syria and along Israel's northern border.
Apart from Netanyahu's approval, Trump's speech was hardly interrupted by applause or welcome from attendees from all over the world.
A meeting of the parties that negotiated the deal with Iran — Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States — was scheduled to take place yesterday on the sidelines of the General Assembly meeting. But there was no expectation that Trump's Secretary of State Rex Tillerson would meet his Iranian counterpart Mohamed Javad Zarif.
Nor was there any expectation of direct communication between Trump and Rouhani. Such meetings on the foreign-minister level were very common during the administration of former US president Barack Obama. The former Democratic president also sent several letters to the supreme leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
Trump noted in his speech that terrorists were gaining strength around the world, but that peace was possible. “To put it simply, we meet at a time of both immense promise and great peril,” Trump said.
“Terrorists and extremists have gathered strength and spread to every region of the planet,” Trump said near the beginning of his remarks. He stated bluntly that certain parts of the world were “going to hell”, suggesting that it was within the UN's power to change course.
“Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some in fact are going to hell,” Trump said. He added that “the powerful people in this room, under the guidance and auspices of the United Nations, can solve many of these vicious and complex problems.”
He said that the United States was prepared to combat global instability through its military might. “Our military will soon be the strongest it's ever been,” he said. Trump told world leaders that he would not seek to insist that their countries adopt US values. “In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch,” Trump said.
He said he would continue to place America's interests ahead of those of other countries, suggesting that his counterparts do the same with their own populations. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first,” he said. “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own nations.”
Trump opened his remarks by touting his economic record, a nod to his core campaign promises of prosperity at home ahead of his major foreign policy speech. “The United States has done very well since election day last November 8,” Trump said. “The stock market is at an all-time high, a record. Unemployment is at its lowest level.” He cited “regulatory and other reforms” for what he called the economic boom.
Trump has delivered major foreign policy addresses before, notably to a gathering of Muslim leaders in Saudi Arabia and in a packed central square in Poland. But the issues at the United Nations are broader, and the geographical spread of Trump's audience is wider. His message in New York will resonate in capitals worldwide, where leaders are still seeking a cohesive foreign policy doctrine from the American president.
Clearly, this doctrine, when it came, disregarded many issues of concern to the world that Trump ignored in his speech. The US president confirmed that “only a political solution” was possible for the ongoing war in Syria, and he strongly lashed out at the “criminal regime” in Damascus for using chemical weapons against its own people.
However, he made no mention of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, unlike his predecessor Obama who used his first speech at the UN to announce he would work towards establishing a Palestinian state.
Trump also made no mention of the wars in Yemen, Iraq or Libya, or of how he planned to use US power to put an end to the suffering of their peoples. Bringing further disappointment to European leaders, the US president also gave no hint that he might reconsider his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement on climate change.
While the US president was personally involved in efforts to mediate a settlement to the ongoing Gulf crisis between Qatar and its neighbours and Egypt, he made no mention in his speech of this issue. Trump was due to meet yesterday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, who strongly opposes Qatar's policies and its support of Political Islam groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and Qatar's Emir Tamim Al-Thani, who has travelled to New York.
However, observers noted that Saudi Arabia did not send a high-level representative to the General Assembly meeting, probably to avoid pressure from Trump to hold a direct meeting with Qatar's emir, who used his speech at the UN to file a long list of allegations against the four Arab countries of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt.
It was Al-Thani's first speech since the crisis erupted last June, and he was keen to make the best use of it, ending with a call for unconditional dialogue to put an end “to an unprecedented campaign of incitement and siege” which he claimed had been brewing against his country.
“Fabricating false reports is a vile and heinous crime, and there were attempts to impose a guardianship system on us,” Al-Thani said in his speech. He described the sanctions against his country as a “campaign” that had been pre-planned against Qatar, calling them an act of aggression against Doha's foreign policy.
Nevertheless, diplomats said that they believed Trump was likely to continue seeking to put an end to the feud between Qatar and its Gulf neighbours. His focus on the Gulf over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, according to observers, reflects the diminishing role that the Peace Process plays in the geopolitics of the Middle East and this president's other priorities in the region.
‘America First' at the UN
While Trump has clung to hopes of peace — he raised them again before meeting on Monday with Netanyahu — he has put much more time into cementing alliances with the Sunni Muslim kingdoms of the Arab Gulf as a way of confronting Iran.
That makes the festering squabble in the Gulf a more urgent headache for him than the decades-old enmity between the Israelis and Palestinians. Ten days ago, Trump's latest effort to settle the dispute, a three-way telephone call with the leaders of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, ended in failure.
“Middle East peace is desirable because it's the mother of all diplomatic deals,” Robert M Danin, a senior fellow in Middle East Studies at the US Council on Foreign Relations told the New York Times. “But the conflict that's taking place in the Gulf is harming US interests in a more immediate sense.”
American officials have gone out of their way to lower expectations from this General Assembly meeting. They do not plan to push either the Israelis or the Palestinians to meet or to present any new ideas for breaking the deadlock between them. Nor will Trump bring Netanyahu together with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for a three-way meeting, as Obama did in September 2009.
Like Trump, UN Secretary-General Guterres said in his speech that the world should collectively fight terrorism, but he also warned of violations of human rights. “Nothing justifies terrorism — no cause, no grievance,” Guterres said.
“Experience has also shown that harsh crackdowns and heavy-handed approaches are counter-productive. As soon as we believe that violations of human rights and democratic freedoms are necessary to win the fight, we might have lost the war,” he added.
The UN chief said that “we must do more to address the roots of radicalisation, including real and perceived injustices and high levels of unemployment and grievance among young people.”
He also called upon the Myanmar authorities to put an end to the horrific suffering of the Muslim minority there. “We are all shocked by the dramatic escalation of sectarian tensions in Myanmar's Rakhine state. A vicious cycle of persecution, discrimination, radicalisation and violent repression has led more than 400,000 desperate people to flee, putting regional stability at risk,” he said.
He added that “from Syria to Yemen, from South Sudan to the Sahel, Afghanistan and elsewhere, only political solutions can bring peace… We should have no illusions. We will not be able to eradicate terrorism if we do not resolve the conflicts that are creating the disorder within which violent extremists flourish.”
Unlike Trump who ignored the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the UN secretary-general stressed the importance of finding a settlement to the nearly 70-year-old occupation of Palestinian land. “We must not let today's stagnation in the peace process lead to tomorrow's escalation. We must restore the hopes of the people. The two-state solution remains the only way forward. It must be pursued urgently,” he said.
One day before he delivered his keynote speech at the opening of the UN General Assembly meeting, Trump held a meeting that called for major reforms in the way the United Nations has been run.
He urged the 193-nation organisation to reduce bureaucracy and costs while more clearly defining its mission around the world. But while Trump chastised the United Nations, an organisation he sharply criticised as a candidate for US president for its spiralling costs, he said the United States would “pledge to be partners in your work” in order to make the UN “a more effective force” for peace across the globe.
“In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential due to bureaucracy and mismanagement,” Trump said, pointing to the UN's ballooning budget. “We are not seeing the results in line with this investment.”
The US president pushed the UN to focus “more on people and less on bureaucracy” and to change “business as usual and not be beholden to ways of the past which were not working,” while also suggesting that the United States was paying more than its fair share to keep the New York-based world body afloat, a message he repeated in his speech on Tuesday.
But he also complimented the steps the UN has taken in the early stages of its reform process and made no threats to withdraw his nation's support.
While running for office, Trump labelled the UN “weak and incompetent” and not a friend of either the US or Israel. But he has softened his tone since taking office, telling ambassadors from UN Security Council member states at a White House meeting this year that the UN still had “tremendous potential”.

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