Donald Trump at UNGA: Politically incorrect US president broke the mould with speech that yanked UN out of ennui

Donald Trump has built an entire career out of political incorrectness. Critics have tried to assign many reasons behind his shocking ascent to the White House, but nobody can see the truth for what it is: During the presidential campaign, Trump said things at rallies that people dare not utter in public. He ripped off the pall of political correctness that defines liberal democracies and connected with people who were fed up with empty virtue-signaling from their leaders.

What Trump's critics and political rivals did not understand, and still haven't understood, is that virtue-signaling might be a great tool to appear virtuous, make friends and influence people (which is why it appeals to politicians), but beyond a point, it ceases to matter.

"One of the crucial aspects of virtue signaling," James Bartholomew, the man who claims to have invented the phrase, writes in The Spectator, "Is that it does not require actually doing anything virtuous. It does not involve delivering lunches to elderly neighbours or staying together with a spouse for the sake of the children. It takes no effort or sacrifice at all."

 Donald Trump at UNGA: Politically incorrect US president broke the mould with speech that yanked UN out of ennui

US president Donald Trump addresses the United Nations General Assembly. Reuters

So, though it must be important for us to identify with the impulse, while taking important decisions — casting the ballot, for instance — most people (and even nations) put self-interests ahead of the need to uphold universal standards of morality. This is why Trump lagged in ratings and still won. And this is why you should ignore the narrative that it might be a short-lived tenure as president for him.

People might be unwilling to admit to an interviewer that they back an alleged white supremacist, and thereby own up to the morally reprehensible things associated with Trump. But the privacy of a voting booth offers immunity from peer pressure and value judgement, and that is where Trump may have appeared as a better candidate to preserve American self-interests as compared to Hillary Clinton.

This context is important to deconstruct Donald Trump's extraordinary debut at the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. The US president barged into the hallowed halls with all the swagger of a former reality TV star and introduced a casual disregard for homilies and platitudes in his maiden address that yanked head-nodding UN delegates off their ennui. The directness of Trump's address was breathtaking. He was direct, purposeful and made some very good points beyond the signature bombast. By all accounts, it was a bold speech — one that only Trump could have delivered — because he is not bound by normative principles applicable to other world leaders.

The speech had some contradictions and was rather nakedly aimed at his base, yet some important markers were laid down, which point to a tectonic shift in American foreign policy. Trump's biggest achievement, however, was the clever use of language to restrict the danger posed by a rational dictator in North Korea.

World media headlines have focused on how Trump intends to "totally destroy" North Korea, and have spun Armageddon theories from there, but a careful reading of Trump's words create quite a different impression:

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. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do… It is time for North Korea to realise that the denuclearization is its only acceptable future. The United Nations Security Council recently held two unanimous 15-to-0 votes adopting hard-hitting resolutions against North Korea… But we must do much more. It is time for all nations to work together to isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior.

Nowhere does Trump say that military action is a given. He poses it as a threat, and that has been his position from Day One. It's not clear whether taking the military option publicly off the table will bring us any closer to a resolution. Kim Jong-un might feel vindicated and even emboldened. What we see instead is that Trump is trying to build up pressure on the Kim regime to "realise that denuclearisation is its only acceptable future", and is calling for all nations to come together to "isolate the Kim regime until it ceases its hostile behavior".

This is very similar to what Emmanuel Macron said later, though media presented the French president's address as a "rebuttal".

Second, Trump's background as a reality TV star (an odd beginning for a president) might have helped, as he sought to defang the tinpot Kim by subjecting him to ridicule. Nothing reduces panic more than mockery. Fear is Kim's shtick. He uses his ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programme to pose himself as an outlier out to destroy the world, and this irrationality creates fear into people's minds and forces world leaders to look for a political settlements.

To disarm Kim, one needs to dispel the fear surrounding him, and Trump seems to have achieved that by calling the dictator 'Rocket Man', a moniker lifted from a popular Elton John number.

Going by the explosion of memes and messages on social media, it worked. Kim's bluff was called out to a huge extent. Firstpost has argued previously that the North Korean dictator is not an irrational actor, though he may like to pose as one.

Jake Novak sums it up well in CNBC, "It's hard to count the number of ways this new moniker in the Trump ridicule machine works on so many levels. It's insulting without being vulgar. It pigeonholes Kim down to his missile-test mania. And it's even the title of one of the most popular pop songs of all time making it so easy to remember, parody, and enjoy."

In private, many world leaders agree that China is as problematic a figure for world peace as any other authoritarian regime. The trouble is, few nations have the resources to take it on and the only country that can, is too deeply entrenched in a symbiotic relationship to attempt a disruption. Yet, China's naked aggression, its revanchist policies and assertion of territorial rights is upstaging the delicate balance of post Cold War-era world order. It takes courage to call out China at a global forum, and Trump deserves credit for his directness.

He made one laudatory reference to China, where he appeared to appreciate its role in imposing sanctions on North Korea, but it was still a qualified compliment. He also made one direct and one veiled reference to China, but these instances won't make Beijing very happy.

He tied Russia's misadventures in Ukraine with Chinese aggression in South China Sea, and called for "respect for law, respect for borders and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow".

The second reference was an angrier one, where he seemed to hold China responsible for North Korea's nuclear proliferation. "It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict," he said.

This is quite extraordinary. North Korea's nuclear proliferation has been the subject of much heated debate. Nobody in their right minds believes that Pyongyang did it on its own. Pakistan's overt and covert help behind Kim's nuclear weapons programme has been well documented. It found most recent expression in India's statement following Sushma Swaraj's trilateral meeting with US and Japan on the sidelines of the UNGA.

China's role, however, has never been discussed in public, that too in an open forum. Trump is more a blunt instrument here. There's no telling whether the public shaming will force China to stop patronising these rogue regimes, but no one can accuse Trump of not trying.

The reference to Venezuela's experiments with socialism and its recent travails was another candid commentary on a failed idea. "The problem in Venezuela is not that Socialism has been poorly implemented, but that Socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true Socialism or Communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems."

It was not just an indictment of a cult that has a long and terrible history of violence and has provided moral justification to actions of dictators throughout the history of human civilisation, it was also an indictment of the incompetence of UN and its human rights body that is ineffectual when it comes to upholding of rights.

There were contradictions, of course. Trump mentioned the word "sovereignty" 22 times and vowed to end America's interventionism, but he couldn't help but promise that "as a responsible neighbor and friend, we and all others have a goal. That goal is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country and restore their democracy". Not very different from Bush-Obama era America.

Overall, however, this must go down as Trump's best speech. He broke the mould because he can. The world will wait to see, however, whether he matches actions to words, or short-sells his credibility.

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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 19:12:56 IST

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