Making America grate: there's nothing funny about Trump's speech
He came to the UN to tell the world that there was no place for it or the vision of its founders - and this is dangerous
In the incredibly fast-moving global news cycle we have now become used to‚ last Tuesday’s events feel like something that happened a decade ago. Yet the significance of US President Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly cannot be under-estimated. It will reverberate for years to come.
It did not start well.
Trump opened by boasting that, in less than two years, his administration “has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country”.
You could see the eyes of the many global leaders in the room (like most politicians, great fantasists themselves) rolling. Then the chuckling began. Then as Trump looked around and muttered “so true”, it got worse.
The global political elite was laughing at the “leader of the free world”, the president of the US, for long the main custodian of the UN’s values and one of the key architects of its agenda. It was extraordinary. For decades the world has gathered at the UN’s general assemblies to listen carefully to the US, to hear how the global political and economic architecture was set out, to work out what positions to take.
In 2018, with global threats escalating to unprecedented levels, the leader of the US was looked upon to help chart the way forward. Instead, he started one of the most important speeches of the year by boasting about himself and his scandal-mired administration. That is why the world’s leaders and diplomats laughed.
The last time there was such laughter in the assembly was back in 2015 when Zimbabwe’s best-forgotten strongman, Robert Mugabe, was met with derision when he shouted: “We are not gays!”
It was part of Mugabe’s regular, near-deranged, homophobic utterances as he tried to deflect from his horrific deeds back home.
The chuckling that accompanied Trump’s speech will be referenced for years to come. Yet there was nothing to laugh about in the speech.
First, Africans might like to reflect on the fact that the world remains an Africa-free zone for the current US administration. The continent hardly got a mention from Trump this year. At least last year, on the sidelines of the same UN General Assembly, Trump invented a whole new African country, referring to Namibia as Nambia, and going on to tell stony-faced, perplexed African leaders: “I’ve so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you. They’re spending a lot of money.”
This year Trump continued his “America First” theme. For someone speaking at a body that encourages multilateralism, Trump was all about how he had withdrawn from international compacts such as the Paris climate accord, out of organisations such as the UN Human Rights Council, and out of international trade deals. It was nationalist isolationism writ large on the global stage.
In essence, Trump came to the UN to tell the world that there was no place for it or the vision of its founders. Instead, he said: “We will never surrender America's sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.”
This is misleading – and dangerous.
No one wants nations to surrender their sovereignty to the UN or other bodies. Institutions like the UN Human Rights Council and the International Criminal Court, from which the US under Trump is walking away, are meant to ensure that tin-pot dictators play to the same rules as everyone else – and do not use sovereignty to oppress and murder their own. Ironically, “sovereignty” was the watchword of the apartheid regime at international meetings in the 1970s and 1980s. It was Mugabe’s favourite theme at the UN as he tried to keep the world away from standing up for ordinary Zimbabweans. Indeed, on his 93rd birthday last year, Mugabe said: “When it comes to Donald Trump, on the one hand talking of American nationalism ... America for Americans ... on that we agree: Zimbabwe for Zimbabweans.”
The vision outlined by Trump last Tuesday ignored Russia’s numerous anti-democratic and oppressive acts (and its alleged interference in US elections, despite Trump’s and Russia’s own blather about “sovereignty”). He lauded North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, who he had derided just a year ago as “Rocket Man”. Are these the sorts of “human rights” leaders he wishes to be associated with?
When he was asked what he made of the laughter at his speech, Trump responded: “They didn’t laugh at me. People had a good time with me. We were doing it together ... They respect what I’ve done. The United States is respected again.”
Some might disagree.