The leader stepped to the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, as close to a literal world stage as exists, and issued a stringent defense of the principle of national sovereignty.
“What is the state sovereignty, after all, that has been mentioned by our colleagues here? It is basically about freedom and the right to choose freely one's own future for every person, nation and state,” he said, attacking what he identified as the hypocrisy of those who seek to violate sovereignty in the name of stopping mass murder.
“Aggressive foreign interference,” the leader continued, “has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions and the lifestyle itself. Instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty and social disaster.”
The leader was not Donald Trump on Tuesday, but Vladimir Putin in 2015. Whatever nexus between Putin and Trump exists for Robert Mueller to discover, the evidence of their compatible visions of foreign affairs was on display at the United Nations clearer than ever, with Trump’s aggressive incantation of “sovereignty, security and prosperity” as the path to world peace. “There can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations, nations that are rooted in the histories and invested in their destiny,” Trump said, hitting his familiar blood-and-soil themes that echo from the darker moments in European history.
Their two speeches are stylistically different. Putin’s metier is to meld contempt for western powers with unstated but obvious threats. Nothing about Trump will ever be understated. He threatened North Korea with nuclear annihilation – leaving aside that a war will engulf South Korea, Japan, Guam and perhaps China as well – and looked forward to the end of the Islamic Republic of Iran, the only real substantive difference he has with Putin.
Sovereignty is not a point prior American presidents have pressed. When global leaders invoke sovereignty, they usually mean that no one possesses the right to oppose what they unleash within their borders. American presidents typically tailor their speeches at the UN to counterbalance a due respect for national sovereignty with calls for collective action against genocide, terrorism, disease, poverty, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.
But now, Putin finally has an American president who considers national sovereignty as the end of the discussion, or at least in the cases where it serves their purposes. Trump’s call for a “respect for law, a respect for borders, a respect for culture” sounds unobjectionable – until it becomes clear that Iran, Cuba, Venezuela, and North Korea will enjoy no such respect from Washington for their own sovereignty. Much as Putin said in 2015 that Russia recognizes “the fact that we can no longer tolerate the current state of affairs in the world,” Trump’s conception of sovereignty is inevitably reserves the U.S. the right to impose its will.
The speech will be remembered for Trump’s threat that absent nuclear disarmament, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” Trump suggested allied nations were “bystanders to history,” complicating South Korean president Moon Jae-in’s assurance last month that the U.S. would seek South Korean approval before an attack on Pyongyang.
As much as Trump insisted that his foreign policy privileges “outcomes, not ideology,” thus far, Trump’s choice to match Kim Jong-un’s rhetoric in kind has resulted in North Korean defiance, most recently with the country’s sixth nuclear test, something Trump had insisted “won’t happen.”
“By targeting the entire country instead of the regime, [Trump] could allow Kim Jong-un to tell his elites ‘we’re all in this together,’” warned Abe Denmark, the Obama administration’s top Pentagon policy official for Asia. Denmark wonders what the U.S. is actually doing to deter North Korea when U.N. Ambassador “Nikki Haley expressed a lot of frustration with piecemeal international sanctions with questionable enforcement and then negotiated piecemeal international sanctions with questionable enforcement.”
Next on Trump’s enemies list is Iran. While U.S. allies in Europe, as well as Russia and China, consider the 2015 nuclear accord a success, removing Iran’s paths to a nuclear weapon for at least a decade, Trump called it an “embarrassment” that gives the U.S. “nothing in return.” Trump stopped short of pulling out of the deal, but ahead of an October deadline for the U.S. to recertify it, he suggested that, “believe me,” he still might. That is a path too far for Russia, which defends the Iran deal even as Russia pockets American acquiescence to its defense of Syria’s Bashar Assad, a mutual client with Iran.
Significant as well was what Trump didn’t say. Venezuela came in for vastly more criticism than Russia, which is at work undermining western democratic elections. Keeping with his pattern, Trump muted his rebuke of Russia with a subliminal swipe at violations of sovereignty “from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” a shot at China, despite the aid Trump seeks from Beijing on North Korea. Iran is the wellspring of global terrorism, but Saudi Arabia stands in “stark contrast,” Trump said, sidestepping its decades-long exportation of extremism.
Usually, the bellicose rants delivered by world leaders at the United Nations have come from America’s adversaries or those who seek to overturn an established order. Think Nikita Khrushchev banging his shoe in response to an accusation of Soviet imperialism, or Yasser Arafat declaring he held an olive branch in one hand and a freedom fighter’s gun in the other, or Moammar Gadhafi calling the Security Council the “terror council.”
But Trump has made clear that during his tenure, the bellicose rants and defenses of impunity will come from the United States. To a world shaken with alarm over the rise of Donald Trump, Trump offered no reassurance and maximal threats. It was a worthy successor to Trump’s “American Carnage” inaugural address, providing perhaps the most robust picture Trump has given of what #MAGA looks like on the world stage.
Putin might consider all that cruder than he’d put it, but he is the speech’s major beneficiary. Trump’s talk of wiping out an entire nation serves to undermine what remains of America’s moral standing. Trump’s vision of an America that does less abroad – aside from issue apocalyptic threats – and tolerates more is one that removes obstacles to a resurgent, aggressive Russia. A test case on Iran, the remaining point of departure between Moscow and Washington, remains. Beyond that, Putin can recognize Trump’s template and applaud its translation into English.