Donald Trump fully embraced his inner neocon before the United Nations today. He lashed out at North Korea, indicating that he was ready to ‘totally destroy’ it. He upbraided Iran as a corrupt and malignant regime that had taken America and its allies to the cleaners with the nuclear deal—’One of the worst and most one-sided transactions.’ And for good measure, he scoffed at various socialist regimes around the globe. The only term missing in his dyspeptic assessment of the carnage around the world was ‘axis of evil,’ the phrase that George W. Bush made famous when he decried Iran, North Korea and Iraq after the 9/11 attacks.
The language he deployed was seldom less than apocalyptic. Like Bush, he embraced the tone of moral superiority: ‘If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph.’ When it was not chiliastic, Trump indulged in snark, referring to ‘Rocket Man’ as being on a ‘suicide mission.’
There can be no doubting that the regimes Trump referred to are as nasty as they come. But enmeshing America in an Asian land war would surpass any of the follies that it has experienced in the Middle East. Russia and China can only hope that Washington becomes stuck in another unwinnable war. What served America well during the cold war wasn’t overt confrontation such as in Vietnam, but the strategy of containment.
Certainly Trump’s speech fitted with the desire he is now expressing to stage a massive military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on 4 July to match, or even surpass, the festivities surrounding the Bastille Day parade that left him agog this past July in Paris, where he was the guest of Emmanuel Macron. One problem is that the avenue isn’t actually strong enough to withstand the weight of tanks rolling over it. Never mind. For Trump, these are mere details. He has apparently become enamoured by a vision of a militarised America that can set wrong aright abroad, whenever and wherever it pleases. His bellicosity is discordant, however, with the more isolationist America First doctrines that he brayed about during the presidential campaign. America First has been converted into a bellicose unilateralism. If anything, it sounds like neocon 2.0.
It was notable that during his speech at the UN, Trump veered from claiming, on the one hand, that it was imperative to respect the national sovereignty of individual nations to alleging, on the other, that there is no burking the necessity of taking out regimes that he, and he alone, deems inimical to American interests and values. What about the country that meddled with the 2016 American elections, thereby violating the precious sovereignty Trump dwelled upon? There was nary a word about Russia.
The most that can be hoped for with Trump’s speech is that it was simply more rodomontade. The danger, as so often with the old boy, isn’t if he’s insincere. It’s if he really means what he said.
Jacob Heilbrunn is the editor of The National Interest