Trump Focuses on ‘America First,’ Blasts China in UN Speech

September 24, 2019, 5:08 PM UTC

The lineup for the first day of the general debate—when heads of state address the General Assembly of the United Nations—is chock full of autocrats and populists like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For U.S. president Donald Trump, his third time at the dais was a sign of a return to his campaigning persona, pushing the “America First” ideology and nationalism in direct contrast to the ideals of the UN. 

“The future belongs not to globalists, but to patriots,” Trump said, in an uncharacteristically droll tone. Anjali Dayal, an international relations professor at Fordham University, told Fortune it was “disconcerting” to hear such “bombastic ideas delivered with such boredom.” 

The thread throughout the speech was one of “protecting” some sort of national culture and heritage but had the undertones of a narrative of white supremacism, according to Dayal, when Trump said; “the free world must embrace its national foundation. It must not attempt to erase them or replace them…if you want freedom, take pride in your country.” 

From the outset Trump touted “rebuild[ing]” U.S. military power but later commented “anyone can make war only the most courageous can seek peace.” The speech was full of such contradictions which Dayal said could either be “bad speechwriting” from Trump’s staffer Stephen Miller or simply an indication of the administration’s lack of a cohesive foreign policy, preferring to demur to the president’s tweets and off-the-cuff remarks about diplomatic matters.

For instance, he said the “administration is working with other nations to stop criminalizing of homosexuality and we stand in solidarity with LGBTQ people who live in countries that punish, jail, or execute individuals based upon sexual orientation,” but Trump’s record on that at home involves attempting to roll back labor rights for LGBTQ workers, eliminating questions on the U.S. Census meant to identify and aid the most vulnerable in the community, censuring language in government documents, and banning transgender people from serving in the military

“The United States has never believed in permanent enemies. We want partners, not adversaries,” the president declared, just after a large portion of the nearly 40-minute speech spent criticizing China and Iran. 

Though he referred to China’s Xi Jinping as a “great leader,” he took the opportunity to say he “will never fail to defend the interests” of the American people as an explanation for slapping tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese goods to rectify the trading relationship between Washington and Beijing. He even warned China to honor its agreement with the UN to respect the freedom of Hong Kong, the first sign of his support for protesters. 

He told the story of a meeting with Micron Technology executives after a similar U.S.-patented product of theirs had gone into production by a Chinese company. Saying China had “game[d] the system” after years of U.S. presidents had “tolerated, ignored, or even encouraged” it, the president noted “those days are over.” 

The U.S. just issued a new round of sanctions on Iran’s central bank and sovereign wealth fund in response to an attack on a Saudi Arabian oil facility, despite Houthi rebels in Yemen claiming responsibility. Trump said Iran was “on a fanataical quest” for nuclear weapons and squashed any hope of sanctions being lifted. To keep with the theme of nationalism, he cautioned Tehran to “focus on building up their own country” by putting the Iranian people’s interests first. 

Perhaps the most stunning part of Trump’s speech was when he spoke directly to refugees and migrants attempting to come into the country from the border with Mexico.

“Do not pay the smugglers.  Do not pay the coyotes. Do not put yourself in danger. You will not be allowed in. You will promptly be released to your country,” he said, adding that every country has a right to protect its borders, but not recognizing the security threats within countries of origin like Guatemala and Honduras. Dayal noted this is in violation of long-standing international asylum law. 

While he noted “Mexico is showing us great respect,” he also acknowledged the 27,000 U.S. troops stationed at the southern border to stop migrants from crossing illegally. He also said those who have been advocating for an open border with Mexico or recognition of U.S. asylum law of having policies that are “cruel and evil.” 

Multilateralism was by far his most frequent target. He not only appeared to want to undermine the UN’s stated goals, but criticized other world bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) for allowing China to become a member and the North American Treaty Organization (NATO), whose members Trump thinks should pay a “fair share” for a collective defense budget. 

The president has been hosting bilateral meetings with India, Pakistan, the UK, and other leaders while in New York. 

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