NEW YORK — President Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations was met with gasps as he threatened to hurt Iran and Venezuela, and then nicknamed North Korea’s leader “Rocket Man.”
Trump’s second address elicited outright laughter in the chamber hall when he bragged his administration had accomplished more in two years than “almost any administration.”
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Now, as Trump delivers his third speech to the United Nations on Tuesday, he is expected to espouse a familiar “America First” theme that was once shocking to the U.N. audience — but now just leaves other foreign leaders searching for solutions without the United States.
“They’re moving on, dealing with their own problems in their own way,” said Ivo Daalder, a U.S. ambassador to NATO until 2013 who now serves as president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The United States is not leading. It’s not trying to bring others along on some given path. It’s just doing.”
The world has heard plenty from Trump. Does this speech even matter?
It does to some people — but definitely not like it did before.
Trump likes to go it alone. That goes against the very reason the United Nations was created — to solve problems together. Still, whatever he does can hurt other countries.
He threatened to send in the military after he said Iran attacked Saudi Arabia’s oil fields. He triggered economic jitters across the globe with his trade war against China. And he disagreed with just about everyone when he insisted North Korea didn’t violate a U.N. Security Council resolution when it re-started weapons testing.
Foreign leaders will be watching closely — and perhaps a little nervously — to see what Trump plans to do about those disagreements, the crisis in Venezuela and Russian aggression in Europe.
“I’m always struck by the official discrepancy between the high-level agenda and what everyone talks about in the corridors,” said Jeffrey Feltman, a former chief foreign policy adviser to U.N. Secretary-Generals Ban Ki-moon and António Guterres who is now at the Brookings Institution. “This year there will be some overlap on climate, but otherwise in the corridors it will be about Iran, energy supplies and trade wars. The U.S. is in the middle of all three of those.”
Which countries will Trump focus on?
Trump will mention plenty of issues in his speech, but it’s being written to send a message to two countries in particular: Iran and China.
First, Iran. He already slapped new sanctions on Iran and sent additional troops to the Middle East after the Saudi oil attacks, which spurred the biggest percentage increase in oil prices since the first Gulf War. But he hasn’t said what’s next, leaving some to worry he could be considering a military strike.
A senior administration official said Iran may just be an area Trump wants to form the kind of coalition he’s generally not interested in. “We welcome this opportunity to consult with a broad range of partners and allies on our collective response,” the official said. “It’s important to remember the attack on the Saudi infrastructure really is an attack on everyone who consumes that energy.”
Second, China. Trump wants to revive talks with China after a protracted trade war. Tariffs on U.S. and Chinese goods are starting to harm the economy and left him with a major unfulfilled campaign promise as he runs for reelection.
So let’s set aside the authoritarian nations. What do democratic countries want to hear?
Leaders of democratic countries, including French President Emmanuel Macron and others representing long-standing European allies, have been pushing Trump to re-engage with them on global issues.
And they’ll be looking for signs that he’s gotten the message.
Trump has gotten along better with autocratic leaders than democratically elected ones — from Russian President Vladimir Putin to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un — and pulled out of numerous agreements, including the Iran nuclear deal and a 12-nation trade pact. Recently, nearly every top diplomat of both parties surveyed said U.S. influence has declined under Trump, according to the Global Situation Room survey.
But on Monday, he gave leaders some hope when he unexpectedly stopped by the U.N. climate summit, along with Vice President Mike Pence and U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Kelly Craft, where he appeared to listen to remarks from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“He’s argued in the past that each country should ask solely in its own interest. And he’s argued that American might, combined with his negotiating skill, would build U.S. power,” said Jon Alterman, who previously served at the U.S. State Department. Now “it seems to me that the president is a little more circumspect about what tools he has at his disposal and what he needs allies to do and what he wants to do unilaterally.”
Everyone is talking about Ukraine. Will Trump?
Ukraine won’t be at the center of Trump’s remarks — but it’ll be on his mind, and everyone else’s there.
Trump still plans to meet with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky. Yes, he’ll do it amid growing calls for impeachment after accusations that he asked Zelensky to investigate one of his top political rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden.
“This is, I think, going to be the most-watched bilateral meeting at the General Assembly,” said Heather Conley, who worked at the State Department during the George W. Bush administration. “And this will certainly have the intensity of international focus on a very new Ukrainian president who just last year was a television star. So this will be quite an extraordinary approach focusing on U.S. assistance to Ukraine.”
Trump has tried for days to justify his comments to Zelensky in a July phone call that was brought to Congress’ attention in recent days.
On Monday, he said he wanted to ensure the country cracked down on corruption while raising the specter that he may have released $250 million in foreign aid after Ukraine said it would look into allegations that Biden pushed the country to fire a prosecutor investigating the company connected to his son, Hunter.
“If we’re supporting a country, we want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said. “If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
Back in Washington, some Democrats are renewing calls for Trump’s impeachment for what they call an abuse of power. Here in New York, foreign leaders are just waiting to see whether the latest controversy reshapes his presidency at all.
Ryan Heath contributed to this report.