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Fortress America: The world according to Donald Trump

US President Donald Trump addresses the UN General Assembly on September 19. Photo/Getty Images

President Teddy Roosevelt’s idea of diplomacy was to “speak softly and carry a big stick”. Trump waves the big stick, but he doesn’t do the speaking softly bit.

If Donald Trump has a world view, it’s this: when he looks beyond America’s shores, he doesn’t like what he sees. So it wasn’t surprising that when the US President spoke to the world at the United Nations General Assembly, his tone was dark, his threats chilling and his subtext, despite the setting, was Fortress America versus all of you out there. By the third paragraph, he was warning the institution that embodies humanity’s yearning for global harmony and a world without war that “we will be spending almost $700 billion on our military and defence. Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been.”
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Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt, President from 1901 to 1909, believed America should “speak softly and carry a big stick”. The US has had a bigger stick than anyone else for decades, but it’s obviously not big enough for Trump. As for speaking softly, forget it: he gives a whole new meaning to the term “megaphone diplomacy”.

So what did Trump tell us? Well, there was some stuff about how noble and self-sacrificial America has been – he actually used the term “out of the goodness of our hearts” – although to be fair most American presidents have made the same claim and there’s some truth to it. He went on about national sovereignty, at length and somewhat redundantly given Article 2 (i) of the UN Charter states that “the Organisation is based on the sovereign equality of all of its members”. Most of the rest was war talk.

The line that got the most attention and caused the most alarm was: “If [the US] is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” The White House subsequently sought to spin this as a statement of the obvious and a robust restatement of warnings issued by previous presidents, including Barack Obama.

North Korean President Kim Jong-un watches the July 4 test firing of a ballistic missile. Photo/Getty Images

Leaving aside the dismal spectacle of the American President – the tagline “and leader of the free world” is no longer applicable – adopting the apocalyptic language of terrorist groups and rogue states, the clear implication is that proportionate response is off the table.

A few days before he was shown the White House door, former Trump adviser Steve Bannon told a reporter, “Until somebody solves the part of the equation that shows me that 10 million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons … there’s no military solution here.”

He was alluding to the inevitability of of mass casualties in Seoul caused by ferocious bombardment from North Korean artillery dug into the mountainside a mere 50km away. Hence the case for going immediately and massively nuclear upon the outbreak of hostilities, however localised or small-scale; in effect, launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike. In light of Trump’s emphasis that he’s “ready, willing and able” to “totally destroy” North Korea, (my italics) it seems the doomsday option is very much on the table.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. Photo/Getty Images

Sword of Damocles

Having dangled the sword of Damocles over Pyongyang, Trump proceeded to brandish it at Tehran. His depiction of the Iranian regime as a tyranny that crushes its own people, exports terror and is “the enemy of righteous nations” and his trashing of the international agreement under which Iran has frozen its nuclear programme – “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions in the history of America and an embarrassment to the United States” – invite the assumption that he’s going to repudiate it, just as he repudiated the Paris Climate Accord.

And if Iran responds by reactivating its nuclear programme, what then? Presumably another charged confrontation, ratcheted up via Twitter insults and brinkmanship to the point where the US “will have no choice but to totally destroy Iran”. Welcome to Donald Does Diplomacy.

Right now, a binding international agreement under which North Korea agreed to mothball its nuclear programme for 15 years in return for the lifting of economic sanctions would be welcomed by most of the international community as a sensible compromise that averts the unthinkable and provides the basis for a permanent solution. Trump, however, is signalling that he’ll wash his hands of such a deal with Iran.

Those egging him on complain that the deal hasn’t stopped Iran pressing ahead with missile development – a separate issue that wasn’t part of the agreement – and won’t stop it reviving its nuclear programme when the agreed time elapses.

“We cannot abide by an agreement if it provides cover for the eventual construction of a nuclear programme,” said Trump. In other words, if the deal isn’t forever, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on. In reality, of course, if the deal were forever it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo/Getty Images

With the possible exception of the Saudi Arabian royal family, no one hates the Iran deal as much as Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: hence his declaration that “in over 30 years’ experience with the UN, I have never heard a bolder or more courageous speech” than Trump’s.

In 2002, Netanyahu told a congressional committee that there was “no question whatsoever” that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was developing nuclear weapons, therefore the US “must destroy the regime because a nuclear-armed Saddam will place the security of our entire world at risk”. Six months later, America invaded Iraq and catastrophe ensued. The invaders searched high and low but found no evidence of the existence or development of nuclear, biological or chemical weapons. Israel’s status as the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East wasn’t under threat after all. (In the assessment of the US intelligence community, Israel also has chemical and biological weapons.)

The R-word

Trump attacked the “authoritarian powers” that “seek to collapse the values, the systems and alliances that have prevented conflict and tilted the world towards freedom since World War II”. For some reason, though, he couldn’t bring himself to utter the word “Russia”. He threatened to depose the “socialist” regime in Venezuela as if we were back in the 1950s and the Dulles brothers, John Foster at the State Department and Allen at the CIA, were bringing down Latin American governments that wouldn’t toe Uncle Sam’s line and replacing them with military dictatorships in the name of containing the Red Menace.

There was plenty about patriotism but next to nothing about human rights, particularly the right of dissent. Veering into alt-right “blood and soil” territory, Trump asked, “Are we still patriots? Do we revere [our nations] enough to defend their interests and preserve their cultures? We are calling for a great awakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people and their patriotism.”

Members of the New England Patriots pointedly kneel for the national anthem before a game in Boston this week. Many teams have adopted the practice, called “taking the knee”. Photo/Getty Images

This “our country right or wrong” concept of patriotism was on show a few days later at a rally in Alabama. He referred to the spreading practice of professional athletes declining to stand during the pre-game national anthem as a protest against racial injustice and police brutality against people of colour, decrying it as “disrespecting the flag” and effectively calling upon franchise owners to fire any such “son of a bitch” on the spot. (In 1990, the US Supreme Court ruled that First Amendment protection of free speech outweighs the sanctity of the Stars and Stripes. In any case, as Samuel Johnson observed, patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.)

Trump’s obvious target was former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who started the national-anthem protests. Kaepernick is unemployed, his stance having apparently earned him an unofficial blacklisting by NFL team owners, most of whom are wealthy white men who donate heavily to the Republicans. Kaepernick, who was put up for adoption at five weeks by his white birth mother – his birth father was black – has donated almost a million dollars to charities in the past year. Kaepernick’s (white) adoptive mother Teresa responded to Trump by tweeting, “Guess that makes me a proud bitch.”

The numbers of athletes following Kaepernick’s lead has emphasised the extent to which African-Americans dominate US professional sport – 70% of NFL players are black. Trump’s reaction reinforces the impression that he is essentially the president of White America and, yet again, is pandering to the white supremacist component of his base.

Colin Kaepernick. Photo/Getty Images

Hell on earth

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Trump said that some portions of the world “are going to hell”. But hell on Earth comes in many forms: in America, 23 children are shot every day; in 2015, 1458 of those adolescent gunshot victims died, which is more than all American fatalities in Afghanistan this decade. Economists Emmanuel Saez and Gabriel Zucman of the University of California, Berkeley have concluded that, in the world’s richest country, the richest 0.1% have almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%. By 2020, according to a study by Prosperity Now and the Institute for Policy Studies, white households in the US are projected to own 86 times more wealth than black households and 68 times more than Latino households. By 2053, the median wealth for Black Americans is projected to be zero dollars.

A portion of the world is going to hell right under Trump’s nose, but don’t expect him to acknowledge it, let alone do anything to alleviate the hellishness.

This article was first published in the October 7, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.