On Tuesday, Donald Trump made his much-awaited debut in the General Assembly Hall of the United Nations in New York, and by and large, the US president didn't veer too far off the beaten path. That is to say, he didn't veer to far off his beaten path.
At the heart of it, this was an archetypal Trump speech, replete with:
- convenient use of historical references ("exactly 70 years ago, that the United States developed the Marshall Plan to help restore Europe"),
- a bit of geography ("from the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia"),
- frequent claims that the US is exploited by all ("we can no longer be taken advantage of, or enter into a one-sided deal where the United States gets nothing in return"),
- namedropping deceased persons to make a political point ("Otto Warmbier, was returned to America only to die a few days later"),
- over-the-top criticism of the Iran P5+1 nuclear deal ("Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States"),
- some more criticism of the previous administration ("security interests will dictate the length and scope of military operations, not arbitrary benchmarks and timetables set up by politicians"),
- using unverified statistics to make a point about immigration/refugees ("For the cost of resettling one refugee in the United States, we can assist more than 10 in their home region"),
- large helpings of grandiose rhetoric that sometimes verges on the bizarre ("History is asking us whether we are up to the task. Our answer will be a renewal of will, a rediscovery of resolve, and a rebirth of devotion.")
- and the customary Trump signature ("Believe me").
While there were much that was familiar about his speech, there remains this unshakeable feeling that we are slowly inching into the unknown. More on that shortly. Aside from the highlights, and delving deeper into the matter of his speech, it was expected that he would lash out at Islamic terrorism, Iran, Cuba — the digs at Nicolas Maduro's Venezuela and Socialism slightly less so — and of course, object of ire du jour, North Korea.
Approaching the point of no return
"No one has shown more contempt for other nations and for the wellbeing of their own people than the depraved regime in North Korea. It is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more."
The subject matter of what Trump had to say about the North Korean regime was something he's covered on many occasions in the past, albeit to largely American audiences. However, this was the first time he was delivering these words from a global platform and the change in setting was instantly noticeable.
North Korean Ambassador to the UN Ja Song Nam reportedly left the hall even before Trump made his appearance, leaving behind a junior diplomat as a perfunctory representative. This probably made starker the realisation that the US president did not have the sort of rapt and enthusiastic audience to which he is accustomed in his public addresses.
And that showed in two significant ways.
First, while Trump's subject matter, as stated above, was nothing new, the manner of articulation certainly was. Particularly, when the setting is taken into consideration.
The General Assembly Hall is perhaps the biggest symbol of global diplomacy and within its confines, certain levels of decorum and parliamentary language are expected. This appears to have been lost on Trump, who made references to 'loser terrorists', 'Rocket Man' and threatening 'to totally destroy North Korea'.
Focussing on the last two of those, the UN is a place where people from all over the world come to discuss global problems and try to devise a solution; it's not a gladiatorial arena in which to do battle with one another. This was a golden opportunity for Trump to position himself as a statesman who genuinely seeks peace and in the process, bring more countries on board in opposition of the Kim Jong-un regime. Instead, he spurned it and opted for another way to provoke Kim and capture headlines with how he said things rather than what he said. More importantly, he clearly signalled the escalation of the standoff between the US and North Korea.
And it's not just Kim that this speech will aggravate. Trump is in danger of further alienating China — which had clearly told the US president to refrain from threatening North Korea any further — and Russia, which has made repeated calls for dialogue.
Second, and staying on the how, it was the biblical nature of his rhetoric that gave the strong impression that we may be on the verge of approaching the point of no return with Pyongyang.
"If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph" and "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" are two such instances that come to mind. Let's sidestep the fact that Trump's threat to 'totally destroy' North Korea goes against his show of concern for the people of North Korea, who are suffering Kim's tyranny.
The paragraphs Trump devoted to North Korea in his speech could be summarised to look something like this:
The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he, who in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who would attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.
If it looks familiar, it's because these lines were delivered (and incorrectly attributed to Ezekiel 25:17) by Samuel L Jackson in Pulp Fiction. And if you've seen the film, you know what comes next.
In his bid to distance himself from the failed policies of his predecessor Barack Obama — whose legacy was supposed to be that of the man to end all wars, Trump has gone in the opposite direction and taken on a George W Bush-esque approach. That the US may eventually not even have to fire a shot is still very likely. And the more Trump continues with this sort of rhetoric, particularly on the world stage, he might find it turning increasingly less probable to the point where war is unavoidable.
After all, North Korea isn't going to take this sort of provocation lightly. As much as Trump has made it his one-point agenda to put an end to North Korea's belligerent ways, Kim too has a one-point agenda: Go nuclear. He has likely seen the fate met by Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and probably interprets it as the consequence of their failure to acquire nuclear capabilities. Kim will fight tooth-and-nail to avoid something similar befalling him. With this in mind, we could soon be at a point where the tiniest spark between the US and North Korea escalates into an inferno of mushroom cloud proportions.
It is hoped that calmer minds prevail.
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Updated Date: Sep 20, 2017 14:00:26 IST