When the US President Donald Trump campaigned for office, there was one constant pledge: that he would turn the political order upside down. And, of all his campaign promises, this is one he has been steadfast in fulfilling. And nowhere was that more evident than in his first address of the United Nations General Assembly. Out with diplomatic tact and subtleties; in with raw and bombastic rhetoric.
Early 20th century U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt famously advocated and practised the doctrine of speaking softly and carrying a big stick. Trump has no use for that. For him, one of the satisfactions of carrying a big stick has to be the machismo that goes with it. So his combative tone was so raw that it sent diplomatic chills across much of the assembly.
Even the White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, looked distressed. One photo shows him placing his left hand on his temple and covering his face. In another photo, he bowed his head, supporting it with clasped hands as his elbows rested on his knees. In both photos, the retired general who was brought to the White House to restore order, seemed to be muttering to himself, “I don’t believe what I’m hearing.”
In the address, Trump directed his fury especially at North Korea, the country that brazenly touts its nuclear capability and fires test missiles over neighbouring countries. As he is wont to in addressing adversaries, Trump referred to North Korean president Kim Jong Un as “the rocket man” and his regime as depraved. “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” Trump said, evoking Biblical notions.
“Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” Trump continued. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
It is not clear what constitutes “forced to,” whether it is a reference to an actual attack by North Korea or its mere development of the capability. Trump has been inconsistent on this in past statements.
In either case, the speech has evoked unease among many. Hillary Clinton, the former U.S. Secretary of State and Trump’s opponent in the general election, deemed the threat unwise.
“I thought it was very dark, dangerous — not the kind of message that the leader of the greatest nation in the world should be delivering,” said Clinton, who was known to be hawkish during her days in government.
In his own address the same day, President Muhammadu Buhari seemed to agree with Clinton. While backing Trump on the need to contain North Korea’s nuclear programme, he proposes a less bellicose approach.
“All necessary pressure and diplomatic efforts must be brought to bear on North Korea to accept peaceful resolution of the crisis,” Buhari said in what could be read as a tacit rebuke of Trump’s bombast. “As Hiroshima and Nagasaki painfully remind us, if we fail, the catastrophic and devastating human loss and environmental degradation cannot be imagined.”
“Nigeria proposes a strong U.N. delegation to urgently engage the North Korean Leader,” Buhari continued. “The delegation, led by the Security Council, should include members from all the regions.”
Trump and Buhari similarly differed on several other issues. Overall, Buhari struck a positive tone, stressing progress and peaceful means. Unlike Trump who belittles the United Nations, Buhari praised the world body for its efforts and successes in containing conflicts around the world, including Boko Haram’s menace of countries in the Chad basin.
In further implicit rebukes of Trump, Buhari praised the nuclear accord with Iran and the Paris Accord on the climate, two things that Trump lambasts. Buhari also praised the U.N. and European countries for helping refugees from several conflict-ridden countries. “In particular, we must collectively thank the Government of the Federal Republic of Germany under the commendable leadership of Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Governments of Italy, Greece and Turkey for assisting hundreds of thousands of refugees.”
Buhari called on the Assembly to extend similar help to Rohingya Muslims who are being attacked and displaced by Myanmar’s military, as well as the lingering plight of other people under siege.
“New conflicts should not make us lose focus on ongoing unresolved old conflicts,” Buhari said. “For example, several U.N. Security Council Resolutions from 1967 on the Middle East crisis remain unimplemented. Meanwhile, the suffering of the Palestinian people and the blockade of Gaza continue.”
Buhari ended his speech by reminding the assembly, perhaps Trump in particular, of why the United Nations was established in 1945 at the end of World War II, a war that claimed at least 50 million lives.
“I end my remarks by reiterating Nigeria’s abiding commitment to the foundational principles and goals of the United Nations,” Buhari said. “Since our admission as a member state in 1960, we have always participated in all efforts to bring about global peace, security and development.”
Indeed, Trump’s and Buhari’s speeches couldn’t have differed more. Trump’s evoked the fiery delivery of the Soviet Union’s Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1960. And Buhari’s was more reminiscent of that of Ethiopia’s Emperor Haile Selassie in 1963.
In what had to be a diplomatic landmark in the history of the Cold War, Khrushchev reputedly pounded his shoe on the desk as he vowed that communism would bury capitalism.
The reverse happened, of course. It was capitalism that buried communism, never mind the latter’s remnants in China, North Korea and Cuba.
Selassie’s address was much more sanguine and continues to reverberate today.It has been immortalised by Bob Marley as lyrics for the song “War”:
“On the question of racial discrimination, the Addis Ababa Conference taught, to those who will learn, this further lesson: that until the philosophy which holds one race superior and another inferior is finally and permanently discredited and abandoned; that until there are no longer first class and second class citizens of any nation; that until the colour of a man’s skin is of no more significance than the colour of his eyes; that until the basic human rights are equally guaranteed to all without regard to race; that until that day, the dream of lasting peace and world citizenship and the rule of international morality will remain but a fleeting illusion, to be pursued but never attained.”
Trump would probably agree. But then maybe he won’t.