At The General Assembly, Trump Preaches Isolationism And Evokes Laughter

President Trump's second speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations wasn't much better than the first, but it it did get the world laughing at us.

Just over one year after his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly. during which he delivered a very belligerent speech targeted largely at North Korea and Iran, the President returned to New York City yesterday and delivered a speech that will likely most be remembered for his rejection of multinational diplomacy and a reassertion of the ‘America First’ foreign policy that was prominent during his campaign:

UNITED NATIONS — President Trump thrust his commitment to an “America First” foreign policy back onto the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. But in his second address on this diplomatic stage, he sounded as eager to claim credit for his achievements after 20 months in office, as he was to disrupt the world order.

If Mr. Trump had changed, so had his audience — no longer as daunted by the insurgent figure who left them slack-jawed last year when he vowed to “crush loser terrorists,” mocked North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and declared that parts of the world “are going to hell.”

This time, emissaries from around the world listened quietly as Mr. Trump fulminated at foes like Iran and failing states like Venezuela. They nodded as he singled out an enemy-turned-partner, Kim Jong-un of North Korea, expressing optimism for a diplomatic opening that would have seemed far-fetched even a year ago.

But when Mr. Trump declared, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” the crowd broke into murmurs and laughter.

Briefly disconcerted, the president smiled and said, “I did not expect that reaction, but that’s O.K.”

It was a jarring moment for a leader who usually speaks to adoring crowds at “Make America Great Again” rallies, where his use of superlatives to describe his success draws reliable cheers. Mr. Trump still commands the world stage and he is still capable of upending American foreign policy with a single tweet. But after a year of such bombast, many in the audience at the United Nations treated him almost as a source of levity, not fear.

There is also evidence that foreign leaders are more willing to push back. Speaking after Mr. Trump, President Emmanuel Macron of France said the Paris climate accord had survived despite America’s decision to pull out. In a not-so-subtle slap at Mr. Trump, he proposed that countries refuse to sign trade deals with those who do not comply with the accord.

On Monday, France joined Germany and Britain — as well as the other signatories, Russia, China, and Iran — in recommitting to the Iran nuclear accord, repudiated by Mr. Trump in May. They did so even as Mr. Trump urged Europe to isolate Iran and warned of draconian new sanctions that would penalize America’s allies for not cutting off commercial ties with the Iranians.

President Hassan Rouhani of Iran criticized Mr. Trump for quitting the agreement and made clear he thought the president’s offer to talk with Iran’s leaders was disingenuous (earlier in the day, Mr. Trump insisted it was the Iranians who had wanted to talk).

“It is ironic that the United States government does not even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks,” Mr. Rouhani said.

Mr. Trump, for his part, condemned Iran’s government as a “corrupt dictatorship” that had looted its people and used the windfall from the nuclear deal to finance what he described as a terrorist campaign that is destabilizing the entire Middle East.

“Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction,” he declared. “They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations.”

“Not good,” he added.

Shifting gears, Mr. Trump lavished praise on his efforts to shake up the established order, pointing to his withdrawal from trade deals and international organizations, his recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his meeting last June with Mr. Kim of North Korea, which he said had produced far more than anyone expected.

“The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction,” Mr. Trump said. “Nuclear testing has stopped. Some military facilities are already being dismantled. Our hostages have been released.”

“I would like to thank Chairman Kim for his courage and for the steps he has taken,” he said, adding, “much work needs to be done.”

Mr. Trump’s speech showed a president at once fickle and set in his ways. His emphasis on sovereignty was a repeat of the big theme of last year’s General Assembly address, and it showed that on the core principles of his “America First” foreign policy, Mr. Trump is not budging.


As he did last year, Mr. Trump relied on his senior domestic adviser, Stephen Miller, for much of the speechwriting. Mr. Miller has spearheaded the White House’s immigration policy and its recent decision to cut significantly the number of refugees the United States will accept.

The national security adviser, John R. Bolton, an even more ardent proponent than Mr. Trump of the virtues of sovereignty, also injected themes. In his own speech at a conference on Tuesday, Mr. Bolton alluded to the frequent description in Iran of the United States as the “Great Satan.”

“If you cross us, our allies, or our partners,” Mr. Bolton said, “if you harm our citizens, if you continue to lie, cheat, and deceive, yes, there will indeed be hell to pay.”

For presidents, General Assembly speeches are a good guide to the evolution of their thinking. In 2009, his first year in office, Barack Obama delivered a soaring paean to the need for diplomacy and collective action. By 2014, Mr. Obama had cast off some early ambitions and dwelt instead on the threat from the Islamic State — an enemy Mr. Trump said Tuesday had been “driven out from the territory they once held in Iraq and Syria.”

But he also promoted his record in the Middle East, where he said his closer ties to Saudi Arabia had helped the fight against extremism, and to Israel, where he said the United States was no longer “held hostage to old dogmas, discredited ideologies, and so-called experts who have been proven wrong, over the years, time and time again.”

Critics said Mr. Trump’s triumphalist tone provoked the derisive reaction. “If you’re boastful, and in the most improbable ways, it’s just becomes outlandish,” said Nicholas Burns, a senior diplomat under President George W. Bush. “It was a sad moment for American leadership.”

The president expressed resentment toward a familiar array of perceived malefactors: allies, who he said did not pay their fair share for military defense; trading partners, who he said exploited unfair agreements that harmed American workers; and oil producers, whom he accused of gouging the United States and other customers.

“OPEC and OPEC nations are, as usual, ripping off the rest of the world, and I don’t like it,” Mr. Trump said. “Nobody should like it.”

While much of the coverage yesterday and this morning regarding the President’s speech concerns the laughter that ensued in the General Assembly chamber after he asserted, falsely, that no American Administration had accomplished as much as he had, there was far more about yesterday’s speech that should be a cause for concern going forward. For example, as Daniel Larison notes in his post this morning, while Trump was far less belligerent toward North Korea than he had been in his speech last year, he was if anything even more belligerent toward Iran than he had been a year ago. Given the fact that this speech comes just five months after he pulled out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action  (JCPOA) and amid was it clearly an effort by the Administration to increase pressure on and tensions with the Islamic Republic, As I noted at the time he took that action, there was no basis whatsoever to say that the Iranians were no complying with the terms of the agreement that had been reached in 2015.  which is why that most of the reasons that Trump based his decisions on issues entirely unrelated to the nuclear deal itself. Today, Trump is chairing a meeting of the Security Council that is further meant to push his agenda on Iran, but as Larison points out, it’s unlikely to get a very good reception:

Trump asserted that “so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported at my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran nuclear deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions,” but in fact only a handful of countries including Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE supported this decision. Almost all other countries in the region and the world consider the reimposition of nuclear sanctions to be illegitimate and unjustified because Iran continues to be comply with the JCPOA. Many of Iran’s immediate neighbors are being negatively affected by the sanctions.

Iraq desperately needs to be exempted from these sanctions because its economy is intertwined with that of its neighbor. Trump’s decision is not popular there, and the sanctions are already causing hardship. The same is true for Afghanistan. Turkey has made it clear that they won’t go along with the U.S. effort to cut off Iran’s oil exports.

The reimposition of sanctions not only hurts the Iranian people, but imposes significant costs on the populations of neighboring countries as well. Trump’s Iran policy is inflicting harm on the entire region, and it is stoking greater resentment against the U.S. It is Trump’s effort to strangle Iran’s economy that threatens and harms Iran’s neighbors more than anything that Iran is currently doing.

More disturbing that the President’s belligerence toward Iran, though, is the extent to which, once again, the President used the occasion of the annual meeting of the General Assembly to put forward a foreign policy vision that is, for lack of a better word, isolationist. This is hardly surprising, of course, given the fact that this has been at the center of the President’s foreign policy since he first became a candidate for the White House. With respect to the United Nations specifically, Trump has proven to be a sharp critic of the organization. To some degree, of course, this position wasn’t all that different from past Republican candidates for President. Like these candidates, Trump criticized the organization as being too bloated and bureaucratic and argued that the United States was bearing an unfair portion of the financial burden of financing U.N. organizations. He also followed the standard conservative practice of claiming that the organization was acting in a manner contrary to American interests and of being unfair to American allies such as Israel in many of its policy positions. During campaign speeches, he would often threaten to withhold or cut back on the amount of money the United States provides to U.N. operations and asserted an “America First” policy that seemed to reject the idea of working together with allies or in concert with international organizations such as the U.N.

Trump’s attacks on the United Nations are only one example of the extent to which he is shrinking away from a strong American role in international affairs. Over the past nine months or so, he has taken a number of steps that have seemingly served the purpose of detaching the United States from its traditional role in the world.

When the President visited Europe last year, for example, he left our closest allies wondering just how committed the President was to the alliance and to its collective defense principles notwithstanding later assurances regarding that commitment on his part. Earlier this summer, the President revoked the exemption from the steel and aluminum tariffs that had been announced back in March that applied to American allies in Europe as well as Canada and Mexico. In doing so, Trump claimed that he was taking this action for “national security” reasons, an utterly silly notion that doesn’t even come close to meeting the test of credulity.

Needless to say, this didn’t go over very well with our allies in Europe and elsewhere. Canada’s Foreign Minister called the new tariffs “absurd,” for example, and European Union officials announced retaliatory tariffs against American goods. Things got even more bizarre in this regard as Trump exchanged harsh words with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau prior to the G-7 Summit. Once he was at the summit, Trump essentially did everything he could to alienate America’s closest allies, thereby seemingly achieving a goal that Russia and, before it, the Soviet Union had only dreamed of, driving a wedge between the United States and its allies. After the Singapore Photo Op Summit, Trump continued his tirade against Trudeau, while polling revealed that Canadian public opinion about the United States was suffering as a result of American actions and the President’s rhetoric.

Finally, it was reported at the same time that the President was considering what would effectively be a ban on German-built luxury automobiles, a threat that he continues to make. One month later, of course, Trump met with Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Helsinki and proceeded to perform just as obsequiously as he had in Singapore during his summit with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un. This meeting, of course, came in the wake of a NATO summit that was about as much of a disaster as you would expect it to be under Trump and a trip to the United Kingdom that didn’t go much better. In the wake of all of this, many of America’s closest allies have begun to question the extent to which they can rely on the United States to continue the leadership role as they have in the past.

I’ve noted in the past, see here, here, and here, the extent to which this alienation of allies has arguably helped Russian President Vladimir Putin to at least partly achieve a goal that the leaders of the old Soviet Union, but it’s clear that it isn’t just Russia that has benefited from this seemingly conscious effort on the part of the Trump Administration to withdraw from the world. Both in response to the efforts of the United States to punish it economically through an ill-advised trade war and in response to the fact that this President has spent the last year and a half wrecking our relationships around the globe. As I noted earlier this month, this has inured to the benefit of not only Russia but also China. Trump’s speech yesterday just made clear that he intends to continue with these foolish policies. Whoever inherits his job, whether it be in 2021 or 2025, is going to have a lot of repair work to do.

You can read the transcript of Trump’s speech at the link and here’s the video:

FILED UNDER: Donald Trump, National Security, Politicians, United Nations, US Politics, World Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook


  1. CSK says:

    Here’s the reaction of the Trumpkins to this debacle:

    These people live in an alternate universe.

  2. James Pearce says:

    Derisive laughter is the appropriate response whenever Trump is talking anything “best in history.”

  3. Ben Wolf says:

    There isn’t an iota of isolationism in what Trump said. What he said was to announce a realignment to favor a different set of elites within the empire. And the ultimate policy is exactly what it was before Trump: We run the place, and if you don’t like it that’s too damn bad.

  4. Michael Reynolds says:

    Trump could hardly be doing more to weaken the United States while strengthening our foes if he were a Russian agent. And he chose the worst time to do it – just when American power was being challenged by the rise of China. As China rises, Trump surrenders, while mouthing off like the belligerent clown he is.

    We’ve been coasting for a long while on the foreign policy accomplishments of Eisenhower and Truman in the post-war world, still carrying the reputation we earned by defeating Japan, helping to defeat the Nazis, and instituting remarkably decent and effective occupations in Europe and the Far East.

    And now that’s all gone. We are no longer leader of the free world, that job is now Angela Merkel’s. We are no longer the city on the hill, we’re just another squalid Trump con. Trump University. Trump Steaks. Trump ice water. Trump bicycle race. Trump football team. Trump America.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Ben Wolf:
    So we bail out of the JCPOA, and we bail out of TPP, and we attack NATO and welcome the Russians in Ukraine, and shut down the Palestinian Authority offices, and put our embassy in Jerusalem, and praise Kim and Erdogan and Duterte, and we plan for a coup in Venezuela, and we upend NAFTA, and . . .

    the ultimate policy is exactly what it was before Trump: We run the place, and if you don’t like it that’s too damn bad.

    As always, ideology is the great crippler of young minds. You’re as far from reality as the Bung.

  6. MarkedMan says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Trump could hardly be doing more to weaken the United States while strengthening our foes if he were a Russian agent


  7. MarkedMan says:

    What a sad pathetic little man he is. And perhaps the most pathetic moment was when he pretended it was an intentional joke. What an embarrassment. Of course, our resident Trumpers will insist that it was a joke, the mostest and bestest joke ever at a UN Conference since 1837. Winning!

  8. Daryl and his brother Darryl says:

    History will write about the time when the world was laughing at the POTUS.
    Bunge will be along any minute to tell us it was an intentional laugh-line.

  9. Franklin says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    We’ve been coasting for a long while on the foreign policy accomplishments of Eisenhower and Truman in the post-war world, still carrying the reputation we earned by defeating Japan, helping to defeat the Nazis, and instituting remarkably decent and effective occupations in Europe and the Far East.

    Just think, the Trump Administration has accomplished more than all that! The mind boggles.

  10. Kathy says:

    There has always been some kind of international order, and there will always be one. The accomplishment realized after WWII was to place all the great powers of Western Europe, meaning France, Germany and Great Britain, in the same alliance. The same strategy did not work in Asia, but Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Taiwan were all tied up in alliances with the US.

    What this did was end great power competition in Europe and Asia.

    There were the twin matters of the USSR and China. The USSR was contained by the alliances built in Europe and Asia, and Nixon, for all his many flaws, managed to split the Sino-Russian alliance.

    What Trump is doing, in essence, is returning the world to XVIII Century type international order, complete with mercantilism. This means great powers competing for markets, and getting into armed conflict when and as necessary. The only difference is the lack of far-flung colonies.

    Now, Trump can’t, all by himself, change the current international order. There are plenty of multinational organizations, trade treaties, and alliances, that the US simply has no say in, or not absolute power over. Like the EU, the WTO, the new TPP, etc. But El Cheeto can weaken many of these institutions, and he can wreck organizations like NATO as well.

    And that would be bad, even if the consequences take time to manifest.

  11. Ben Wolf says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    So we bail out of the JCPOA, and we bail out of TPP, and we attack NATO and welcome the Russians in Ukraine, and shut down the Palestinian Authority offices, and put our embassy in Jerusalem, and praise Kim and Erdogan and Duterte, and we plan for a coup in Venezuela, and we upend NAFTA, and . . .

    It must be refreshing to wake up having no memory whatsoever.

  12. Kathy says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:

    Bunge will be along any minute to tell us it was an intentional laugh-line.

    What? they aren’t claiming there were cheers already? That would explain his humble response “I wasn’t expecting that reaction.”

    But, we know how well El Cheeto handles ridicule, don’t we? He’ll demand to be made Secretary General of the UN, just wait and see if he doesn’t.

  13. Slugger says:

    The UN is often just a stage while the real message is directed elsewhere. When Khrushchev was pounding his desk with his shoe or Castro was talking about his Harlem hotel room, the message was aimed at the American public. When Colin Powell was showing pictures of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction sites, the aim was to get the American public to buy into a war. Trump have his usual stump speech where he has pulled America out of ruins and ashes into unprecedented success that no one else could have done. The representative from Burkina Faso like others from about 120 nations has an opinion about the USA that a speech designed for Grand Rapids is not going to change. Hence the laughs. Once the war against Iran starts, they’ll stop laughing. Of course, before the Iran war ends we’ll not be laughing either.

  14. KM says:

    @Daryl and his brother Darryl:
    Well, Nikki Haley was on FOX and Friends to claim the laughter was a sign of respect. Because laughing at someone is totally a sign of respect and not ridicule. I mean, who among us hasn’t laughed at someone to their face more then once to prove their deep, deep respect for them or what they were saying?

  15. An Interested Party says:

    Whoever inherits his job, whether it be in 2021 or 2025, is going to have a lot of repair work to do.

    The same was said about whoever would replace George W. Bush, and Obama did a reasonably good job with that…granted, the damage this buffoon is doing is major, but it can be repaired with the right president…

    Well, Nikki Haley was on FOX and Friends to claim the laughter was a sign of respect.

    Good grief…only a complete and total tool could make that claim with a straight face…

  16. Tyrell says:

    “I am prepared to wait for your answer until hell freezes over”
    “After four years at the UN, I sometimes yearn for the peace and tranquility of a political convention”
    – Adlai Stevenson II, US ambassador to the UN

  17. Paine says:

    I laugh at my boss all the time. He knows it’s a deep and sincere sign of my utmost respect…

  18. Ben Wolf says:

    @Tyrell: @Daryl and his brother Darryl: “Historians” will record the laughter. “History” will wipe that laughter from existence. It won’t be in textbooks, and Jake Tapper won’t ever mention it. Within a decade Trump will be normalized.