Julian Zelizer: In the face of North Korean tensions and climate change, Trump's UN speech will matter
He might want to take a page from presidents past, Zelizer says
Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer is a history and public affairs professor at Princeton University and the author of “The Fierce Urgency of Now: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society.” He’s also the co-host of the “Politics & Polls” podcast. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
Donald Trump is set to speak to the United Nations General Assembly this Tuesday. And with this, the “America First” President will try to appeal to an institution that he has insulted, demeaned, and attacked over and over again.
The world will be closely paying attention; much is at stake.
Tensions with North Korea have reached a boiling point. The US Ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, one of the sober voices in the administration, has warned that if diplomatic measures fail, Secretary of Defense James Mattis “will take care of it.”
Thus, with the possibility of a major military conflict on the table, Trump’s ability to strengthen an international coalition of support through this speech will be vital.
There will likely also be great interest in the question of climate change and what the United States will ultimately do about it. Indeed, the speech comes in the wake of flip-flop statements about whether the President will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord; 195 nations, including the United States, have signed on to the pact, which is widely seen as critical to reversing damage from global warming.
We don’t know what Trump will say, how he’ll present himself, and the overall message he’ll deliver. But it will be a speech that matters.
Many presidents have used their speeches before the UN to either outline a vision for America’s role in the world or pursue a specific policy objective.
Though he is not really a student of history, the President might want to look back at some of these presidential speeches that made a difference.
President Truman was the architect of American’s Cold War policy. With the head of the Russian delegation sitting right in front of his podium, Truman used his speech at the opening session of the UN General Assembly to explain what this policy meant for the United States and the world. “This meeting of the Assembly symbolizes the abandonment by the United States of a policy of isolation. The overwhelming majority of the American people, regardless of party, support the United Nations.”
The speech took place at a critical moment in US history, when the nation was still deciding what its post-war posture would be on the global stage. Although there were still powerful voices in Washington, such as Ohio Senator Robert Taft, fighting to limit US involvement overseas, Truman firmly put himself behind liberal internationalism. The US would not go it alone.
Five months after the Bay of Pigs fiasco that left US forces humiliated on the shores of Cuba, JFK stood before the United Nations. Kennedy was no dove, but he delivered a powerful piece of oratory that pointed to the need for nonmilitary solutions to the US-Soviet tension. He explained that the UN was the institution that best embodied this objective. “For in the development of this organization rests the only true alternative to war – and war appeals no longer as a rational alternative. Unconditional war can no longer lead to unconditional victory.”
He called for a “peace race” to replace the arms race, and called for disarmament negotiations, as well as a “realistic” plan to achieve it. “Every man, woman and child lives under a nuclear sword of Damocles, hanging by the slenderest of threads, capable of being cut at any moment by accident or miscalculating or by madness.” While Kennedy’s legacy would come to be associated with the early escalation of the war in Vietnam, the speech provided an important alternative view of how international cooperation offered the world the only viable path forward.
In his first term, Ronald Reagan’s hawkish rhetoric and refusal to enter into negotiations with the Soviet Union created a tense atmosphere where there were real fears of the possibility of nuclear war. When ABC broadcast the film “The Day After” on November 20, 1983, about the impact of a nuclear war on a town in Kansas, Americans were terrified because many felt this was a real possibility. Realizing that the situation had deteriorated, Reagan started to “pivot” when he spoke to the UN in September 1984. The President pointed to the Soviet and US representatives sitting in front of him and said, “In this historical assembly hall, it’s clear that there’s not a great distance between us.” The speech was the start of a new attitude for the President, one that resulted in the historic Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces – or INF – arms agreement in 1987.
George H.W. Bush was commander in chief at a critical moment in world history: the Soviet Union literally crumbled during his tenure. Thus, in his remarks at the UN, he needed to maintain a delicate balance. If the President said too much and appeared to be boasting, his words could easily backfire. Bush also faced the burden of outlining to the world how the United States would handle international affairs now that it had been victorious against communism.
All of this became especially pertinent after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, triggering an international crisis. During a speech to the UN, Bush made it clear that the United States remained firmly committed to working through international alliances. He outlined his vision for what he called a “New World Order,” which he had discussed with Congress.
“We have a vision of a new partnership of nations that transcends the Cold War: a partnership based on consultation, cooperation, and collective action, especially through international and regional organizations.” The speech affirmed his commitment to the world to work through institutions such as the UN. He put his money where his mouth was by stitching together an unprecedented coalition against Iraq, through which he conducted military operations.
In September 2016, just three months before the election that would rock the United States, Obama seemed to be reading the writing on the wall. He delivered his last speech to the UN, and warned of the dangers that the nationalist impulses sweeping Europe and the United States posed to global stability. Referring to candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric, he said: “A nation ringed by walls will only imprison itself. At this moment, we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration, or we can retreat into a world sharply divided and ultimately in conflict along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
The speech remains a powerful injunction against the risks the nation faces if President Trump continues along his path of nationalism.
When presidents speak to the UN, their words have great consequence, ringing through the corridors of history. This week, the words Trump chooses, his demeanor, his meaning and his message can be pivotal in determining whether he can maintain the international alliances that the US desperately needs to achieve its objectives – or whether President Obama was much more prescient than he ever hoped to be.