Trump’s U.N. Speech
President donald trump’s second visit to the United Nations in September began with a laugh—at his expense—and ended, at least in my experience, with tears.
Trump opened his address to the world’s leaders in the same way that he opens many of his campaign-style rallies: by praising his administration for accomplishing “more than almost any administration in the history of [the United States].” The obvious absurdity of this boast left the U.N.’S normally staid representatives giggling incredulously.
Having begun on an unintentionally humorous note, the president used the remainder of his address to attack many of the norms and institutions that Americans helped establish to ensure international peace and security after World War II. Pitting a simplistic view of national sovereignty against what he labeled “globalism,” Trump proudly advertised that the U.S. is no longer in the business of leading nations in finding solutions to the world’s toughest problems.
Trump told leaders that a respect for sovereignty means “the United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.” It also means the U.S. will, for the duration of his administration, no longer engage with the U.N.’S Human Rights Council or the International Criminal Court. One could almost hear a sigh of relief from Syrian tyrant Bashar al-assad and the Burmese officials responsible for the mass murder and rape of the Rohingya population. Never mind that none of these entities threaten U.S. interests and in many cases operate to U.S. advantage. For now, institutions like the HRC will instead reflect the will of Beijing and Riyadh.
Trump’s own review of the world’s hot spots invariably violated his sovereignty shibboleth. He heaped praise upon Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for their actions in Yemen, overlooking that, with U.S. support, the bombing campaign carried out by those governments has contributed to what the U.N. calls the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, his remarks omitted nearly any reference to Russia, despite its well-documented efforts to alter the outcome of the 2016 U.S. presidential election.
Even in his choice of countries worthy of praise, Trump signaled values at odds with American ideals. His celebration of Jordan’s decision to host over 1 million Syrian refugees seemed designed to deflect from his administration’s historically uncharitable policy of barring those fleeing war from the U.S. His praise of reforms undertaken by Saudi Arabia’s young crown prince omitted the severe crackdown on human rights activists in what remains a theocratic, absolute monarchy. His singling out of Poland and Israel as thriving democracies left many perplexed, given each country’s recent struggles with democratic governance.
While Trump and other national leaders sparred, activists gathered in the U.N.’S hallways, hoping to bring attention to the plight of the marginalized. Human Rights First, the organization I help lead, assisted in assembling a panel focused on the nearly 60,000 men, women and children thought to be held in Egypt as political prisoners. The event brought together two Egyptian-americans once abused in Egyptian prisons with the families of two men currently held there. Liuba Yepes, the wife of American Khaled Hassan, held back tears as she described his brutal torture.
The day before, Trump had met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-sissi, whose rule has been marked by human rights abuses. The official account of the meeting made no indication that Trump had raised Hassan’s case or any other matter concerning Egypt’s human rights record. Last month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo reversed a decision made by his predecessor, Rex Tillerson, to limit the military aid the U.S. provides to Egypt until that government made progress on human rights. Through her tears, Yepes expressed frustration that the U.S. seems to have abandoned what once made it great and good.