The usual suspects stepped up to criticize the US, but allies also offered gentle rebukes
Some analysts see worrying potential for US isolation on the world stage
A giant gold Goliath. Mentally deranged. A pusher of pipe dreams.
World leaders pulled out the stops, and perhaps a thesaurus or two, to review President Donald Trump’s first appearance at the UN General Assembly, the multi-day pageant of meetings known as the Super Bowl of Diplomacy.
Some of the more colorful trash talk came from old foes of the US, while rivals for power tried to land a punch about nations used to “lording it over others.” But alongside the expected zingers came a raft of quieter criticism from countries that have long stood beside Washington in the global arena.
Where some saw a “refreshing” honesty in Trump’s remarks, others said the concern bubbling up from allies about his rhetoric and policies on Iran, North Korea, climate change and even domestic issues suggests there’s a danger the US will grow isolated on the international stage.
“Isolation of a different sort”
“This is isolation of a different sort, this is self-isolation,” said Daniel Serwer, director of the Conflict Management Program at the Johns Hopkins School of International Studies. “These aren’t conservative positions, they’re radical positions on climate change, North Korea and Iran.”
Trump delivered trademark provocation – threatening to “totally destroy” North Korea in a body based on the idea of turning swords into ploughshares. He dismissed the North Korean leader as “Rocket Man.” He hinted at a decision to walk away from the international pact that restrains Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
And in a body devoted, however imperfectly, to the idea of collaboration for the greater good, he championed self-interest.
“Some of us were embarrassed, if not frightened, by what appeared to be the return of the biblical giant gold Goliath,” said Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s president. “Are we having a return of the Goliath to our midst who threatens the extinction of other countries?”
Mugabe said that the world wanted to be led by a United States guided by values of unity and peace, “not by the promise of our damnation.” Countries like his had already resisted “damnation” in the form of imperialism. “The master of imperialism was defeated by us,” he said. “Bring us another monster, by whatever name, he will suffer the same consequences.”
Criticism from the likes of Mugabe, not a particularly warm friend of the US, is “just business as usual,” said James Carafano, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation. “Put everyone’s politics and line up their comments and they just fall in line like tin soldiers.”
Certainly, the usual critics lined up.
North Korea’s Kim slammed Trump from afar as a “mentally deranged US dotard,” sending hundreds of thousands running to their dictionaries.
Venezuela’s Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza, speaking just outside the General Assembly, bristled with sarcasm as he told reporters that, “of course the country that violates the human rights all over the world seems to have the moral authority to come and speak to the rest of the countries as if they were his employees.”
President Hassan Rouhani of Iran rebuked Trump’s “ignorant, absurd rhetoric.” Cuba’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Bruno Eduardo Rodriguez Parrilla, said the US leader “manipulates” the concept of sovereignty and security, “ignores and distorts history, and portrays a pipe dream as a goal to be pursued,” to his own benefit and the harm of others, including his allies.
At least one of those allies had nothing but praise for Trump. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted that, “in over 30 years in my experience with the UN, I never heard a bolder or more courageous speech.”
The US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley said that many countries “were very positive to the speech,” adding that “they appreciated how blunt and honest he was … how straightforward he was and how refreshing it was.”
But publicly and privately, Haley and the Israeli leader seemed to be in the minority.
One senior diplomat from a close US ally said Trump’s references to his “America First” campaign platform, which he tied to his remarks on sovereignty, were “just terrible.” A diplomat from the Middle East, asked for an opinion about Trump’s address to the UN, simply laughed and after a pause said, “interesting.”
But others were more than happy to air their concerns publicly, however carefully.
French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau were among leaders who called out Trump for his decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, putting the US in a club of three, alongside Syria.
“There is no country on the planet that can walk away from the challenge and reality of climate change,” Trudeau told the UN Thursday.
Another nearby neighbor, Mexican Secretary of Foreign Affairs Luis Videgaray, used his address to the UN to question Trump’s “America First” spin on sovereignty.
“We hear voices today questioning the efficacy of multilateralism to deal with the world’s challenges,” Videgaray said, without mentioning Trump by name. “Mexico rejects this dilemma and continues to be a sovereign state with a profound multilateral feeling. No matter how powerful a country is it cannot respond to the enormous shared challenges of time.”
“It is multilateralism that makes a difference,” the Mexican minister said, mentioning problems like climate change, arms regulation, drug control and natural disasters as just a few examples of challenges one country can’t manage alone.
A win for Mexico, a loss for the US
At a later press conference, he wondered at the logic of Trump’s decision to expel children brought to the US without papers, many of them from Mexico and now known as “Dreamers.” “It’s hard to understand why a country would export, export for free a human capital of this quality,” Videgaray told reporters at the UN. “If that happens it would be a tremendous win for Mexico, big loss for the US.”
Again and again, people returned to the Trump administration’s handling of North Korea, singling out the propensity for threats that, in their view, escalate tensions, not defuse them.
Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven wasn’t the only person to question not just Trump’s boast of North Korean destruction, but the place he chose to do it. Speaking to CNN, Lofven said, “I think the spirit of the world community and the United Nations is not to threaten one another, it is to find a way to common solutions.”
German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel rebuked Trump’s remarks on sovereignty and his dismissal of the Iran deal, linking it to ongoing tensions with North Korea. “This is not only about Iran,” Garbiel said. “This is about the credibility of the international community.”
What happens, he asked, “if it turns out that negotiated agreements do not endure and confidence in those agreements are not worth the paper they’re written on. How are we going to convince countries like North Korea that international agreements provide them with security?”
Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Taro Kono also touched on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as the Iran deal is known, saying that it’s “extremely important” the pact be continuously and steadily implemented.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who told a room full of diplomats that “we don’t destroy countries,” made clear that Europe will chart its own path if need be. If the US leaves the deal, she said, “I can tell you as a European … we will make sure that the agreement stays.”
Carafano says the Europe is upset because of Trump’s “big challenge to the euro-federalist program,” the commitment to a European Union. “They see calls for sovereignty as a direct challenge on the European project.”
As for the upset about Trump’s threat to North Korea, Carafano says it’s “laughable.”
But others like Serwer see worrying signs.
“The European allies aren’t with us on North Korea, Iran or climate change,” he said. “He is pretending to lead but nobody is following. It’s that bad.”
Correction: This story was updated to correct French President Emmanuel Macron’s title.
CNN’s Shachar Peled, Ellie Kaufman, Kristina Sgueglia, Ann Roche and Brian Vitagliano contributed to this report