On September 19th at the United Nations, Donald Trump made the most important foreign policy speech of his term to date, probably his most impressive utterance of any type, when he hit most of the right notes in explaining to the world what to them has become an inconvenient truth that they needed to hear from an American President. This message is essentially the gravity with which he views the threat from North Korea in a morally clear and unequivocal way and that the U. S. reserves the right to use nuclear weapons to pre-empt a first strike from an adversary and its weapons of mass destruction. During the Cold War we called this “deterrence”, but we were then dealing with rational players and it seemed not so necessary to make such threats publicly. And of course it was reported that there was shock in the room, because such blunt talk irritates the sensibilities of the world’s diplomatic corps at Turtle Bay and is a rude, but refreshing alternative to the doublespeak we normally get from the UN podium.
But this is a different ball game. After 25 years of more or less standard diplomacy, we’re dealing with one reckless regime that is possibly within months of reaching the capability of launching an ICBM and another adversary with whom we have signed a very misguided treaty that will almost certainly result in its becoming a nuclear power within a few years. It’s time for a new approach and that is what Trump was all about at the UN.
One other part of his speech was also instructive. He has clearly moved the U. S. back to realpolitik and away from nation-building, but he placed significant emphasis on the importance of sovereignty. He made it clear that, while he will always put America first, as other leaders will put their people first, and in spite of the degree to which the free flow of goods and people are making traditional national identities obsolete, “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition” and “nations and borders matter no less in the era of globalization”.
If I had one quibble, it would be that he should have mentioned that sovereignty is about more than borders and interests; it’s also about the people’s rights and the methods by which they are governed. But I will leave that for another day. The speech was well done and very important.