President Trump could have used his maiden speech at the United Nations on Tuesday to reassure allies he was capable of providing global leadership against 21st century threats.
Instead, he delivered a bombastic stump speech about guarding American sovereignty that was more suited to his faithful than to world leaders. He peppered his mainly isolationist remarks with a dash of religious sermonizing (to please evangelicals?) and several nods to traditional Republican rhetoric and even regime-change neocons.
The result was a mishmash rife with contradictions — rather than the new foreign-policy doctrine of "principled realism" his aides had promised.
Even more disturbing was Trump's use of inflammatory bluster against North Korea and Iran that failed to disguise the absence of coherent policy on either. This raises the prospect America will soon face two nuclear crises, and possibly two new wars.
The internal contradictions in this speech revealed the hole in the center of American foreign policy: a Trump team that holds starkly different worldviews. Previous presidential teams have argued within, but previous presidents have normally resolved those differences and put their own stamp on the product. Trump, however, veers back and forth like a metronome, and is often impervious to advisers.
The result makes for incoherent speeches and incoherent policy. With no clear vision or direction from the top, chaos reigns.
That confusion was evident on the U.N. podium. The lead writer of the speech was reportedly the young, ubernationalist, anti-immigrant Stephen Miller, who channels Trump's most basic isolationist instincts.
So Trump stressed America First over and over, insisting he was "renewing this founding principle of sovereignty" as the basis of American foreign policy. Never did he commend any benefits of collective action, even when they make the United States stronger.
Indeed, the president used the word sovereignty more than 20 times, reviving his constant complaint that the world, and the United Nations, was taking advantage of America. The stress on sovereignty was a sop to his alt-right base, some of whom believe that U.N. bureaucrats (in black helicopters), along with international organizations, were on the verge of taking control of our country.
But for Trump, the sacredness of sovereign borders seems to apply mainly to America and whomever he favors at the moment, including certain authoritarian regimes.
The president never mentioned Russia's violation of U.S. sovereignty by interfering in our elections or its invasion of Ukraine. (He did make a brief reference to respecting the borders of "the Ukraine," a term not used since Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.) His brief reference to threats to the sovereignty of the South China Sea never mentioned China's military buildup there.
Trump's reverence for sovereignty disappeared, however, when it came to Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, and Cuba, where he came close to advocating regime change (a neocon approach that had disastrous results in Iraq and that Trump has previously rejected).
I get it, these are all bad regimes (more on this below). Yet those regimes, along with Russia, China, and Syria, all insist no nation has the right to intervene in the sovereign affairs of any other — which means America should butt out of their business. Is that the community that Trump wants to join?
More to the point, Trump's sovereignty mantra is taking him down a dangerous path when it comes to North Korea and Iran.
Perhaps the president thought he could scare Kim Jong Un when he proclaimed that the United States, if "forced to defend itself or its allies," would "totally destroy North Korea." But America cannot handle this problem alone.
No question, Washington would have to respond to any actual threat from Pyongyang with military force. But Trump's loose language implies a nuclear strike. Moreover, he set a dangerous red line by insisting the only outcome for North Korea was to give up its nuclear program, which nearly every expert on the region believes Kim will never do.
Far better to have used Tuesday's. platform for a sober but tough warning to China and the world body that now is the last chance to enforce new U.N. sanctions — and even tougher ones will be needed. Trump's talk about mass destruction — without first consulting Asian allies — will only undercut Asian solidarity against Pyongyang and goad Kim to respond in kind.
As for Iran, yes the nuclear treaty is imperfect, but it prevents Tehran from building nuclear weapons for at least a decade. To abandon it now would free Iran to march straight to a bomb unless Washington wanted to go to war. Nor would the other signatories to the pact — the European allies, as well as Russia and China — go along with a unilateral U.S. exit.
What Washington needs now, in standing up to North Korea, Iran, and Russia, is a coherent foreign policy of tough, behind-the-scenes diplomacy that works with friends and allies on further isolating Pyongyang, while enforcing the Iran deal and curbing Tehran's behavior in the Mideast. And it needs a president who can make American firmness clear to the world.