Donald Trump set to push nationalist agenda at UN

Financial Times Financial Times

9 hours ago by Katrina Manson in New York

Donald Trump’s debut address to the UN general assembly on Tuesday morning is expected to set out a nationalistic foreign policy based on “sovereignty” and which pulls back from any vision of the US as an overseas nation-builder.

A senior White House official described Tuesday’s speech as “a huge event”, which he said would lay out the case for co-operation between countries based on outcomes that put national interest and burden-sharing at the heart of US foreign policy. Such a focus sidesteps preoccupations with human rights, democratic values or lasting alliances.

“The crucible of ‘America First’ is not only consistent with the goal of international co-operation but a rational basis for every country to engage in co-operation,” said the official, adding that Mr Trump’s latest foreign policy speech represented a doctrine he is calling “principled realism”.

Although allies have grown concerned about the Trump administration’s withdrawal from internationalism — including the UN’s Paris climate agreement and a 12-nation Pacific trade pact — a firm embrace of national interest would be in line with a growing post-Cold War trend away from a US foreign policy driven by values and ideals.

The US foreign policy establishment has been engaged in a frequently bitter internecine fight over the role that the promotion of democracy and human rights should play in international affairs since the 2003 Iraq war, which was largely promoted by ideologically driven neoconservatives seeking to transform the Middle East into a more pluralistic and open society.

A values-based foreign policy has been championed by internationalists in both parties, including, during the administration of Barack Obama, Democrats such as then-secretary of state Hillary Clinton and vice-president Joe Biden. But Mr Obama himself pursued a far more interest-based approach, seeking to disengage from the Middle East and engage with leaders in Iran and Cuba who had previously been condemned for suppressing political dissent.

In his address to the UN, Mr Trump appears set to present a more pure form of a foreign policy driven by self-interest or “realism”, an approach most closely associated with Henry Kissinger, the Nixon-era secretary of state who Mr Trump has consulted.

A senior White House official said Mr Trump’s speech would be “deeply philosophical” and build on two earlier speeches in which the US president set out a vision of engagement with the world that focused on sharing burdens and protecting western civilisation.

Michael Desch, director of political science at the Notre Dame International Security Center and a self-proclaimed “realist”, said Mr Trump’s articulation of his “principled realism” has been muddled, citing his “embrace of autocratic Saudi Arabia while simultaneously slapping an Iran that had just re-elected a fairly moderate government”.

“Any time you add an adjective to realism you are heading for trouble,” Mr Desch said. “More worrisome . . . President Trump seems to want his cake while eating it too,” he said, adding that the president was arguing for restraint and selectivity while continuing an ambitious global war on terrorism. “These are circles not easily squared.”

The White House official said Mr Trump’s speech would reflect his vision, rather than that of Rex Tillerson, US secretary of state, or Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the UN.

“The president has a lot of advisers . . . but this speech is the president’s speech and that’s where the attribution belongs,” said the official, adding that Mr Trump had spent much time crafting and fine-tuning his address.

Mr Trump will also urge action against North Korea and Iran. North Korea is developing rapidly its nuclear missile capabilities despite efforts to squeeze it economically, while the US says Iran is in default of the “spirit” of a groundbreaking deal to freeze its nuclear ambitions.

The president also mentioned “principled realism” at his speech in Saudi Arabia in May, when he renewed a pledge that he would not seek to “impose our way of life on others” and would offer partnership without lectures. “We must seek partners, not perfection — and to make allies of all who share our goals,” Mr Trump told assembled Arab and Islamic leaders, urging them to do more to stamp out terrorism. In Poland in July, he portrayed a need to protect the west’s values as “faith and family” and pledged himself against “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people”, portraying it as an invisible danger facing civilisation.

In both earlier speeches he used language of sweep and existential alarm. In Riyadh, he said he wanted to “vanquish” the forces of terrorism, portraying a battle between good and evil. In Warsaw, he urged the west not to become so weak that “we will not survive”.

Tuesday’s speech is likely to explore similarly broad themes of nationalism and mutual interest in an address that would “appeal to each nation to use sovereignty as the basis for mutual co-operation”, the official said, adding that the nation state was “the best vehicle for the elevation of the human”.