Trump Is the Laughingstock of the World—Literally
The laughter spoke volumes.
“One year ago, I stood before you for the first time in this grand hall,” Donald Trump, the 45th and current president of the United States, said, addressing the General Assembly of the United Nations. The auditorium was filled with senior diplomats and heads of state from around the planet, gathered for the world body’s annual general debate, a celebration of multilateralism where the will of the global collective had an opportunity to be heard over the cacophony of the five superpowers who occupy the permanent seats of the Security Council.
As the leader of the host nation, the American president followed the speeches given by the presidents of the General Assembly and Brazil. Trump’s was the first major address, and the world’s diplomats eagerly awaited his words.
“[Last year] I addressed the threats facing our world,” Trump said, “and I presented a vision to achieve a brighter future for all of humanity. Today, I stand before the United Nations General Assembly to share the extraordinary progress we’ve made.”
Just a few days earlier, Trump had delivered one of his trademark rants at a rally in Las Vegas, vowing to “Keep America Great.” He has grown accustomed to crowds of loyal supporters cheering on his ludicrous claims regarding the accomplishments of his presidential tenure to date.
“In less than two years,” Trump told the General Assembly, setting up a go-to line used frequently among his political base, “my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
Then, something remarkable happened. There was no applause, but rather laughter, as the world’s diplomats acknowledged the uncomfortable reality that America’s leader—ostensibly the most powerful and influential person in the world—had transformed himself into a sad joke.
“America’s …” Trump tried to continue, before being compelled to smile at the laughter breaking out before him. “So true,” he said, to even more laughter. “Didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.” The gathered diplomats laughed some more, before politely applauding to make an awkward moment less so.
An American president had just become—literally—the laughingstock of the world.
This moment was a long time coming. Donald Trump was elected in part because he had promised to challenge the established way of doing business. A businessman with a penchant for showmanship, Trump had packaged his worldview into oversimplified sound bites that mirrored the ignorance and fears of much of the American electorate who supported his views about the world in which they lived.
Everything was reduced to transactional terms—not what was fair, balanced or good for the benefit of all, but rather what was good for America. In many ways, this kind of economic exceptionalism did not differ from those administrations that had preceded Trump—America had long enjoyed an advantageous relationship with the rest of the world. But Trump had eliminated the niceties and diplomatic veneer that had previously been used to disguise American greed. For Trump and his supporters, “America First” meant “America Only.”
Campaign rhetoric has a tendency to soften in the face of reality once a candidate becomes an incumbent, and there was a hope among many Americans—those who voted for Trump and those who didn’t—that the New York real estate mogul would surround himself with people who, when confronted with the reality of the world, would translate the president-elect’s reality television approach into something that more or less resembled actual policy. This did not come to pass. Rex Tillerson, the chairman of ExxonMobil who had taken over the reins at the State Department, was never able to win the confidence of Trump, who viewed himself as America’s senior diplomat. Following the self-destruction of Michael Flynn, Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster took over as the national security adviser in what would be a futile effort to bring a semblance of control to a national security apparatus that had devolved into chaos.
Only James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general known as “Mad Dog,” was able to stave off Trump’s predilection for interference, keeping the Department of Defense a talking point for the president without ceding control. (“We have secured record funding for our military,” Trump bragged to the U.N. General Assembly, “$700 billion this year, and $716 billion next year. Our military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been before!”)
Twice Trump had ordered Mattis to carry out military strikes against Syria, ostensibly in response to alleged chemical weapons attacks perpetrated by the Syrian government of Bashar Assad; twice Mattis had his military planners scale back the scope of the strikes to avoid potential escalation with Russian forces operating inside Syria.
Trump had a vision of America’s relationship with the world that did not comport with the status quo. But “rip it up,” however pleasing to the ear of the average fan of “Make America Great Again,” does not automatically translate to sound policy. Trump wanted to change the world but had no plan for what he would do once the changes took place.
Like Mattis at Defense, Tillerson and McMaster did their best to constrain the president’s ambition to drastically rewrite America’s global playbook, cautioning against withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015, moderating the president’s bellicose words toward North Korea, and putting the brakes on Trump’s budding friendship with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Frustrated, Trump took a page from his time as the star of the reality television show “The Apprentice” and fired both Tillerson and McMaster.
In their stead, Trump moved the Kansas Republican-lawmaker-turned-director-of -the-CIA, Mike Pompeo, to the State Department, and brought in John Bolton as his national security adviser. Almost immediately, Trump went out of control, precipitously withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, convening and attending a summit with the North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un, engaging in a full-scale trade war with China and Europe, and trash-talking NATO before attending a summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, where the American president looked small while on stage with the diminutive Russian leader.
The decision to withdraw from the Iranian nuclear deal has isolated the United States from the rest of the world—not a single other signatory to the agreement has followed Trump in leaving the agreement, with which Iran is universally acknowledged as complying. Instead, Trump finds himself diplomatically isolated, reduced to using the threat of secondary sanctions to bully other nations into severing economic ties to Iran by complying with America’s unilateral sanctions. In the face of these threats, many nations are working diligently to find workarounds, further diminishing U.S. influence.
While demonstrating that the word of the United States has no value through his actions vis-à-vis the Iran nuclear agreement, Trump has sought the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula without the benefit of the kind of detailed preparatory work that past efforts at arms control (including the Iran nuclear agreement) entailed. The result has been grandiose rhetoric backed up with little of substance. North Korea has shunned Pompeo, referring to his style of diplomacy as “gangster-like,” stroking Trump’s ego with kind words while they turn to others—China and South Korea in particular—to negotiate an actual agreement.
Trump has exaggerated the impact of trade imbalances with both China and Europe (and Canada and Mexico, for that matter) to denigrate not only existing trade agreements, but also disparage and undermine the efficacy of the World Trade Organization, a global body created to resolve trade disputes between members. As a result, the United States is now engaged in an escalating economic conflict with two of its most important trading partners—China and Europe—involving the imposition of crippling tariffs in the face of unilateral American demands regarding how things should be. (The European trade war has been put on temporary hold while negotiations between the U.S. and the EU take place; China, on the other hand, has told its citizens to prepare for a full-scale trade war with the United States that will last decades.)
One of Donald Trump’s signature stances during his campaign was to question the efficacy and viability of the NATO alliance, couching it—rightly so—as a Cold War relic, largely underwritten by the American taxpayer. It is one thing to question the utility of a decades-old treaty created for containing the now-defunct Soviet Union; it is another to advocate for the demise of this organization void of any semblance of a plan on what would replace it. NATO has always been an American-led show; without the U.S., there simply would be no NATO. Trump’s effort to shift the burden of sustaining the alliance onto Europe without similarly transferring the mantle of leadership is a prime example of his America First philosophy’s fundamental disconnect with the world as it is.
While the sycophantic governments of the Baltic states and Poland court an increase in NATO (read American) military presence on their soil as a deterrence against possible Russian aggression, the rest of Europe deals in a reality more shaped by North African and Middle Eastern immigration. Trump has advocated for an arbitrary increase in NATO defense spending without undertaking a realistic look at the mission it would fund. The bottom line is that Europe exists in the real world, where Russian gas is a needed commodity, and the peaceful coexistence of Russia and Europe a realistic probability. When the United States allows Poland and the Baltics to define the NATO military mission, and attacks Germany for entering an economically sound gas pipeline construction deal with Russia, he undermines the very foundation of the organization he claims he is trying to reform, accomplishing little more than pushing Europe toward a common policy position with Moscow.
American relations with Russia have taken a tragicomic turn, with the Trump administration facing political paralysis in the face of ongoing investigations into allegations that his presidential campaign colluded with the Russian government during the 2016 election. The work of special counsel Robert Mueller has resulted in numerous indictments, arrests and convictions, including those of former national security adviser Mike Flynn, former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and others. Trump himself has turned up the political heat on this matter, threatening to shut down the work of Mueller’s team, while weighing whether to fire Deputy Attorney General Rob Rosenstein, who, in the face of Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ recusal from all matters Russia, is responsible for overseeing the work of the Mueller probe.
While this passion play unfolds, the real world—one populated by a resurgent, nuclear-armed Russia flexing its muscles in the Baltics, Ukraine and Syria—carries on. Trump has played a dangerous double game with Russia, simultaneously singing the praises of its leader while declaring himself to be Putin’s harshest foe, imposing a wave of economic sanctions designed to punish the country and deter malign activity. Meanwhile, he has reversed course in Syria, where he had promised to withdraw American troops in recognition of Russia’s success in helping the Assad government defeat rebel forces—including those trained and equipped by the United States—in favor of a more malignant strategy: one in which American troops remain, uninvited and in perpetuity, as a means of baiting Moscow into another Afghanistan-like quagmire.
Trump is only deluding himself. The recent downing of a Russian surveillance aircraft over Syria during the course of an Israeli airstrike, along with the death of 15 crewmen, has prompted a radical reshaping of Russian policy, with the transfer of control over advanced S-300 surface-to-air missile batteries to Syrian forces, the integration of these missile units into an advanced air defense management system never before deployed outside of Russia, and the establishment of no-fly zones around Russian bases in Syria.
The new Russian air defense configuration places the air forces of Israel, the United States and others at extreme risk should any effort be undertaken to strike targets that fall under its umbrella of protection, greatly increasing the possibility of a military confrontation with Russia that could escalate dangerously.
Any potential U.S.-Russian confrontation must take into consideration the reality of the considerable nuclear arsenals possessed by both powers. Trump’s aggressive rhetoric toward Russia has been matched by the Russian deployment of several advanced nuclear weapons systems, all of which are designed to defeat American missile defenses. These new weapons are somewhat constrained by existing arms control agreements. However, the poisonous state of U.S.-Russian relations under President Trump has resulted in zero progress in negotiating new arms control agreements, a dangerous oversight given that the existing New START treaty, negotiated by the Obama administration, expires in 2021.
Trump’s hawkish new coterie of advisers—Pompeo, Bolton and Nikki Haley, the South Carolina governor-turned-U.N.-ambassador—appears oblivious to the risk of war with Russia, believing that American unilateralism is a right that all nations must respect, regardless of circumstance or consideration. This notion of exceptionalism has extended to American relations with Iran, where, beyond the fallout surrounding Trump’s precipitous decision to withdraw from the nuclear agreement, the United States has singled out what it terms malignant activity in the Middle East as justification for a new policy of confrontation designed to contain and roll back Iranian influence in the region. Both Bolton and Pompeo have openly advocated for regime change in Tehran, including increased American support for opposition groups founded in Iran’s ethnic Arab minority—something that, in the aftermath of the recent terror attack in Ahvaz, aligns the United States with other state sponsors of terror.
The withdrawal of the United States from the Paris Climate Accord, the transfer of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the severance of diplomatic relations with the Palestinians, the withdrawal from the Human Rights Conference, the denigration of the International Criminal Court—these and more examples of Trump Amerocentric vision world have transformed the United States from world leader to global bully. America’s allies remain loyal because of a shared history and hope for a better future post-Trump, and not because of any ideology pushed by the president and his advisers. The United States has never been more isolated from the rest of the world than it was on Tuesday morning, when its president stepped up to the dais at the U.N. General Assembly.
Trump bragged about his diplomatic success with North Korea, noting how his threats issued from the same platform the previous year had prompted Pyongyang to reach out to the United States—or more precisely, Trump himself—to negotiate its denuclearization and the terms of peace on the Korean peninsula. “We have engaged with North Korea,” Trump told the General Assembly, “to replace the specter of conflict with a bold and new push for peace. The missiles and rockets are no longer flying in every direction. Nuclear testing has stopped. Some military facilities are already being dismantled. Our hostages have been released. And as promised, the remains of our fallen heroes are being returned home to lay at rest in American soil.”
Left unsaid was the reality that diplomacy with North Korea—while a commendable achievement representing a break from the failed policies of the past—had accomplished little in terms of measurable, lasting results.
Negotiations with North Korea were very much on Donald Trump’s mind as he identified a new international target—”the corrupt dictatorship in Iran.”
In the morning hours of Tuesday, prior to his speech at the General Assembly, Trump tweeted: “Despite requests, I have no plans to meet Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Maybe someday in the future. I am sure he is an absolutely lovely man!”
The Iranian president was quick to observe that not only had Iran not made any such requests, it had in fact turned down repeated requests for such a meeting by the Trump administration.
Trump’s tenuous relationship with fact-based reality was put on full display as he lashed out at Rouhani before the General Assembly. “Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.”
Unmentioned was the fact that Iran was in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, while the United States had deployed its troops into Syria unilaterally, without the consent of Damascus and violating international law in the process. Also left unsaid was the role that America’s illegal and unprovoked invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 played in shaping the events in the Levant that led to the Syrian conflict and the subsequent rise of Islamic State. The U.S. has spread more mayhem across the Middle East than Iran could ever hope to.
“Iran’s neighbors have paid a heavy toll for the [regime’s] agenda of aggression and expansion,” Trump declared. “That is why so many countries in the Middle East strongly supported my decision to withdraw the United States from the horrible 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal and reimpose nuclear sanctions.” While Trump’s decision may have been supported by Israel, Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf Arab states, it has been widely condemned elsewhere as inherently destabilizing.
Trump went on to state, “We cannot allow the world’s leading sponsor of terrorism to possess the planet’s most dangerous weapons. We cannot allow a regime that chants ‘Death to America,’ and that threatens Israel with annihilation, to possess the means to deliver a nuclear warhead to any city on earth. Just can’t do it.” Yet the fact remains that Iran poses no such threat and continues to operate in full compliance with a nuclear agreement designed to prevent the very scenario the president has outlined.
“We ask all nations to isolate Iran’s regime as long as its aggression continues,” Trump said, wrapping up his attack on Iran. “And we ask all nations to support Iran’s people as they struggle to reclaim their religious and righteous destiny.” The ugly irony of those words in the face of the Ahvaz terror attack seemed lost on the American president.
“America is governed by Americans,” Trump announced to the General Assembly. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.”
What the “doctrine of patriotism” meant was subsequently made clear when Trump announced that “[w]e are grateful for all the work the United Nations does around the world to help people build better lives for themselves and their families.” But, Trump observed, “few give anything to us. That is why we are taking a hard look at U.S. foreign assistance … we will examine what is working, what is not working, and whether the countries who receive our dollars and our protection also have our interests at heart. Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends.”
The New York City real estate executive has transformed the crudeness of President George W. Bush’s post-9/11 rallying cry of “You’re either with us or against us” into terms a businessman could grasp—America will pay only for that which benefits American interests.
And the hell with the rest of the world.
This was the message the international community took away from Trump’s speech—America, and only America, matters.
The world listened, grimaced, and, as was the case of the German delegation after being singled out by Trump for its government’s gas deal with Russia, was left to laugh in frustration at a man who had clearly lost touch with reality.
But the ultimate irony of Trump’s embarrassing speech before the General Assembly was that it was Iran, the target of his angst and ire, that put the American president’s words into perspective. President Rouhani, responding to Trump’s attack on global institutions, observed that “[c]onfronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength. Rather it is a symptom of the weakness of intellect—it betrays an inability in understanding a complex and interconnected world.”
No truer words could have been spoken.