Trump's UN speech triggered laughs: Is US leadership still serious?

President Donald Trump reacts to laughter from diplomats during his address to the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday Sept. 25, 2018 at U.N. headquarters. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

President Donald Trump began his speech before the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday touting his accomplishments to a crowd that was far less enthusiastic than the crowds he has faced on the campaign trail.

The president began his address with a boast before he was interrupted with laughter. "In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country," Trump said.

As the gathered heads of state chuckled, Trump went off script. "Didn't expect that reaction, but that's okay."

The president's critics in the United States seized on the awkward moment as a sign of how the international community views American leadership under Trump.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., told Circa the president's claims of accomplishment "ought to be met with derision."

Democratic Congressman Gregory Meeks of New York tweeted, "If there was any doubt that the world is laughing at or shocked silent by President Trump, the #UNGA chamber is now visual proof."

The president's speech Tuesday, touting American interests while criticizing allies and multinational institutions, was characteristic of what was seen at the 2017 General Assembly, the June G-7 Summit in Quebec, the July NATO Summit in Brussels and other international venues.

Trump may not have won any stylistic points for his speech, explained retired diplomat and director of the Atlantic Council's Eurasia Center, John Herbst, but America's role in the world remained relatively intact.

"We could do without the traditional Trumpian drama, we'd be better off," Herbst said. Though the United States has not "ceded" it's position of leadership, he continued, the president's performance "chips away at it."

"We retain our leadership, one, because we are the United States and the most powerful in the world, and two because the policies of the administration are quite different from his statements," Herbst said. "But it's not as strong as it would be if we didn't have this act going on."

There is nothing in American politics quite like when President Trump takes the international stage.

The president's speech "was one of contradictions," said American Enterprise Institute research fellow Zack Cooper. "It was, in short, a fitting description of his administration’s foreign policy thus far."

In one breath, Trump spoke of the U.N.'s "unlimited potential" and rejected the institution in the next.

"We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy," Trump said denouncing the U.N.'s International Criminal Court. "America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism."

Trump urged other nations to make their countries "great again" and pursue their sovereign national interests, while at the same time appealing for cooperation on embracing national loyalty over globalism.

"Trump set out patriotism as incompatible with globalism, neglecting the reality that many of the challenges confronting the United States this century, including terrorism and nuclear proliferation, will require collective action," wrote Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

The president acknowledged the efforts of international partners in pressuring North Korea to a position where denuclearization talks are moving forward. He also acknowledged the Persian Gulf countries' collaboration with the United States to combat terrorism and target terrorist financial networks.

Much like last year, Trump set out an "America first" doctrine that left no ambiguity about his priorities, even those that run counter to the United Nations itself.

Trump defended the U.S. decision to withdraw from the U.N. Human Rights Council, calling it a "grave embarrassment." He also announced the U.S. decision not to participate in the Global Compact on Migration, saying, "Migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens."

Trump further suggested that in the future, U.S. foreign aid will only be provided to nations "who respect us and, frankly, are our friends."

Trump criticized American allies, calling out Germany in particular for its energy deal with Russia. He also accused the Organization of Petroleum Export Countries (OPEC) of "ripping off the rest of the world." He took aim at nations who engage in unfair trade, calling out China for its unfair trade practices after thanking President Xi Jinping for his efforts to address North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

"He talked in an unfriendly venue about policies they don't like," Herbst said. Starting with the U.S. withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem and on to the criticism of U.N. initiatives and its core value of multilateralism. "He doesn't shy away from those kinds of confrontations, he seems to welcome them."

The president will continue his meetings with foreign leaders in New York in the coming days. On Wednesday, Trump will chair a high-level meeting of the U.N. Security Council where he is expected to address weapons of mass destruction and the threat of nuclear proliferation from Iran and North Korea.


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