Donald Trump’s speech before the United Nations General Assembly was both an echo of George W. Bush and something original. At times, one expected the president to lapse into a Texas drawl and warn about ‘nuclear weapons’; at others he was distinctly The Donald. Despite the seeming contradiction, it was a fairly cogent and consistent address; it also overflowed with the customary bombast.
Trump began firmly in carrot-top mode, gloating about how well the American economy had done since he was inaugurated. Then came an abrupt escalation: ‘Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terrorists,’ Trump warned, ‘but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.’ The flashback was immediate: the ‘axis of evil’, war in Iraq, missing chemical weapons—everything he’d repudiated on the campaign trail by pledging to keep America out of foreign entanglements.
Trump then seemed to confirm this tilt by reading the riot act to the rogue nations. He threatened to ‘totally destroy North Korea’ should American defense require it, and warned that ‘Rocket Man’—his nickname for Kim Jong-un—’is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime’. Over in Tehran, Trump continued, ‘the Iranian government masks a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy’. That’s two axis of evil charter members right there, with Iranian ally Bashar al-Assad also tossed in: once hopeful he’d have a friend in the White House, the Syrian dictator had his regime called ‘criminal’ by Trump.
So is America returning to its mid-aughts hawkishness? Is the future back to the Bush administration? Not exactly. Thumb through any George W. Bush transcript and you’ll find endless invocations of transnational concepts like democracy, liberty, and human rights. These ideas, always faintly sketched, were what transformed the war on terror from a logical retaliation against al-Qaeda to an ideological crusade in Iraq. It’s easy to forget just how radical the thinking was back then. Books by putative conservatives blazed with titles like An End to Evil and Deliver Us From Evil. ‘Real men go to Tehran‘—that’s how one British official summed up the Bush administration’s thinking in 2003, implying that another war was to come after Iraq, and then another, until all the world’s dictatorships were flipped to shimmering nouveau democracies.
It didn’t work out that way. After Iraq, America woke up with a shattering hangover and public opinion eventually came around to Trump’s approach: keep up the tough rhetoric but only use military force when it’s absolutely necessary. So while Trump’s General Assembly speech continued the ugly brinksmanship with North Korea, it didn’t aspire to liberate humanity as Bush might have. Trump rightly perceives that democracy isn’t a panacea against terrorism. ‘We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government,’ he told the U.N.
What Trump seeks is a world of clearly delineated and diverse nations that pursue their own interests and compete while respecting each other’s sovereignty and borders. He confronts North Korea not because it’s transgressed democratic dogma, but because its nuclear aspirations menace American allies. He calls out China not because it’s an authoritarian power, but because it’s complacent over the threat from Pyongyang. Hypocrisies abound—Trump mustered not a breath of criticism for the Wahhabism-spreading Saudis, for example—but his U.N. speech was no neocon redux. Remember when Bush tried to bullwhip Turkey into the European Union because he viewed the EU as a vehicle for democracy? This president is something very different indeed.
Ideology breeds selfless will and distracts from nuance in favour of soaring visions, which is why Bush barnstormed through Iraq and Trump stopped in Syria after bombing an airbase. Our current president, for all his brimstone, isn’t much of a zealot. Still, his fellow world leaders won’t care. What they heard at the U.N. was just another American cowboy. ‘Trump threatens to ‘totally destroy’ North Korea’—that headline will linger for days. It’s up to the president to show that his rhetoric is merely a tool, that he can talk down the rogues without muddling into another quagmire.
The problem is that right now the result of Trump’s yellpolitik doesn’t look much different than that of a neocon foreign policy. The ‘fire and fury’ provocations have not tempered North Korea; just last week Pyongyang launched its second intermediate ballistic missile over Japan in less than a month. We seem to be swaggering towards war yet again. The best hope is that Trump’s fiery rhetoric will persuade other nations to intervene more modestly so as to prevent the bad-cop United States from taking potentially worse measures. Cut to China, currently implementing U.N. sanctions on North Korea. Maybe it’s the optimistic American in me, but there may be a method to Trump’s madness yet.