At the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) in New York, world leaders sat waiting to hear from Donald Trump for the first time in this setting.
Despite having made New York his home, speaking at the UN wouldn’t have felt like much of a homecoming for a career businessman who scored political points by critiquing the organisation for its imbalance and inactivity.
As he took to the podium, White House watchers will have been wondering which Trump might show up. The conciliatory president who struck a deal on the debt ceiling with the Democrats? Or the aggressive showman who retweeted a gif of his golf ball knocking Hillary Clinton to the ground?
As he took to the stage, country leaders were quiet and remained stoic as they tried not to react to direct comments about their countries. The two North Korean seats were vacant.
Rocket man burning out his fuse up here alone
The President showed off his new nickname for Kim Jong Un, the despotic leader whose motives remain unknown to the global community.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he said. “The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”
In many respects, his speech was a call to action on the hot button issue for the international community – North Korea’s rapid ascension towards military nuclear capability. In an address that lasted over 40 minutes, Trump left an indelible mark on the General Assembly by vowing to “totally destroy North Korea” if the US and its allies were forced defend themselves.
Safe in the knowledge that new UN resolutions that impose sanctions on North Korea require the support of Russia and China, colleagues of the USA and UK on the UN Security Council, the President used his speech to get China’s attention.
He needs China to apply its trade leverage against North Korea, though there has been scant evidence of any real willingness to do that in recent years. Dangling the public threat of military action, Trump threw down the gauntlet to get the world thinking seriously about North Korea arriving at the point of nuclear proliferation – before it’s too late.
Analysts have been quick to try and decipher whether the speech was the embodiment or antithesis of ‘America First’. In contrast to the usual onus on globalisation that dominates the UNGA floor, the President’s speech channelled national sovereignty as the core foundation on which the system of international relations is built.
Having pulled the US out of the Paris climate accord and supported Brexit, this was hardly a surprise, although traditional Republicans may have been astonished to see the United States threaten war while praising national sovereignty as the guiding principle of affairs between nations.
In truth, we do not live in traditional times and Trump has spent his time in the White House blurring party political lines in days that were entrenched over decades. Despite his focus on national sovereignty, the speech was anchored on the need for a truly global coalition to overcome North Korea’s motives.
In considering Trump’s speech, it is paramount to remember that this is a president who is still getting used to the responsibilities of office and the levers of power at his disposal. Threatening war and pushing the red button are two very different things, and so once again it remains to be seen whether we should take Trump seriously but not literally or literally but not seriously.
One thing was clear: the speech was perfectly in step with his desire to stage a North Korea-esque military parade down Pennsylvania Avenue on 4th July.
Not the only 70-something with potential
At the UN, the President offered a major window into his foreign policy agenda, with perhaps a more valuable insight into how he wants to achieve it: strongman tactics and hard rhetoric designed to bully the opponent into conceding defeat, while pressuring traditional friends to help on the way.
It is a tactical divergence from the approach of the Obama administration, who favoured quiet diplomacy, but with little success on the Korean peninsula. Time will tell if the Trump method works, but the fact remains that the President who is quick to attack friends and allies needs to bring other world leaders into his coalition when combating this most pressing of national security issues.
The UN must also show some flexibility in facing the North Korean problem head on. With only eight months separating the birth of the UN and Trump, in New York there were two 70-something-year-olds on display, each showing great potential if they are willing to reform their ways, even a little.