The nature of the rhetoric in Donald Trump’s first speech at the UN General Assembly was largely predictable. Even his bizarre threat to “totally destroy North Korea” was consistent with his overall style and previous warnings.
But how different was his speech to the first and last UN speeches of President Barack Obama?
The 19th-century English author John Ruskin wrote: “Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts – the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art.”
Soon after Obama’s arrival in the Oval Office, the Harvard Business School professor John A. Quelch used Ruskin’s quote to re-assert the need to strike a balance in US internal politics and foreign policy. Like others, he emphasized that Obama must use his positive image to restore “the American brand,” which was badly tarnished during the two terms of George W. Bush.
Using a plagiarized slogan from the South American union organizer Cesar Chavez, “Sí, se puede!” – “Yes, we can!” – the Obama campaign breathed life into a greatly discredited US political system.
The brand was such a success that, even before Obama won the election, his campaign won the top award at the annual Association of National Advertisers conference and was the Advertising Age’s marketer of the year in 2008.
The use of words at the expense of real action continues every time Trump sends an embarrassing tweet or gives a belligerent speech. His address to the UN last week was a case in point. And despite their vastly different style – Trump’s confrontational approach compared with Obama’s composed attitude – their words promise “more of the same.” To demonstrate, here are the main subjects they raised in their UN speeches, in their own words.
Terrorism and extremism
Neither president took any responsibility for their country’s direct or indirect role in fomenting terrorism – for example, the invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. Instead, they spread fear, while positioning themselves as the global safety net against terrorists and those who fund or support them.
Obama (2009): “Extremists sowing terror in pockets of the world; protracted conflicts that grind on and on; genocide; mass atrocities; more nations with nuclear weapons; melting ice caps and ravaged populations; persistent poverty and pandemic disease. I say this not to sow fear, but to state a fact: The magnitude of our challenges has yet to be met by the measure of our actions.”
Obama (2016): “We’ve taken away terrorist safe havens.”
Trump (2017): “Terrorists and extremists have gathered strength and spread to every region of the planet. Rogue regimes represented in this body not only support terror but threaten other nations and their own people with the most destructive weapons known to humanity.”
North Korea and nuclear weapons
For both Trump and Obama, war is a necessary evil, and only the US is capable of making the determination when such evil is to be applied. Neither seemed bothered by the fact that the US is second only to Russia in the number of its nuclear warheads, as it has stockpiled 6,800 nuclear weapons compared with North Korea’s estimated 10-40 devices.
Obama (2016): “We cannot escape the prospect of nuclear war unless we all commit to stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and pursuing a world without them … When North Korea tests a bomb that endangers all of us. And any country that breaks this basic bargain must face consequences.”
Trump (2017): “Our military will soon be the strongest it has ever been … North Korea’s reckless pursuit of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles threatens the entire world with unthinkable loss of human life … 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.”
Russia and China
Once again, both Trump and Obama imposed themselves as guardians of a US-centric world order. Their perceptions of China and Russia, in particular, remained unchanged.
Obama (2016): “If Russia continues to interfere in the affairs of its neighbors, it may be popular at home, it may fuel nationalist fervor for a time, but over time it is also going to diminish its stature and make its borders less secure. In the South China Sea, a peaceful resolution of disputes offered by law will mean far greater stability than the militarization of a few rocks and reefs.”
Trump (2017): “We must protect our nations, their interests and their futures. We must reject threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
They have vastly different styles, but an analysis of what the two presidents actually said reveals that they sound depressingly alike.
Palestine and Israel
Both presidents were supportive of Israel. In his speech, Trump did not mention the words “Palestine” or “the Palestinians.” He mentioned Israel only in the context of an alleged Iranian threat to destroy it.
On the other hand, Obama’s first UN speech promised the reactivation of the defunct peace process. In his last speech, he blamed Palestinians, but spoke of Israeli responsibility too. However, Obama gave Israel more money than any president in history.
Obama (2009): “I appointed a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, and America has worked steadily and aggressively to advance the cause of two states – Israel and Palestine – in which peace and security take root, and the rights of both Israelis and Palestinians are respected.”
Obama (2016): “Surely, Israelis and Palestinians will be better off if Palestinians reject incitement and recognize the legitimacy of Israel, but Israel recognizes that it cannot permanently occupy and settle Palestinian land.”
Trump (2017): “…”
Interventionism and US exceptionalism
Both presidents provided a romantic depiction of their country’s interventionist role in world affairs. Again, much self-admiration and no responsibility whatsoever.
Obama (2009): “The world must stand together to demonstrate that international law is not an empty promise, and that treaties will be enforced.”
Obama (2016): “The mindset of sectarianism, and extremism, and bloodletting, and retribution that has been taking place will not be quickly reversed … [We must remain] united and relentless in destroying networks like Daesh, which show no respect for human life.”
Trump (2017): “From the beaches of Europe to the deserts of the Middle East to the jungles of Asia, it is an eternal credit to the American character that, even after we and our allies emerge victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others.”
The vision thing
Neither president had a true vision, because no meaningful vision for the future can be achieved without introspection and a serious acceptance of responsibility. Instead, their “visions” were mostly re-hashed, romanticized language with no relation to reality.
Obama (2016): “We must respect the meaning that people draw from their own traditions – from their religion, from their ethnicity, from their sense of nationhood …”
Trump (2017): “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideologies. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.”
Based on the above, it should not be too difficult, alas, to predict the general tenor of Trump’s last address to the UN General Assembly; more threats, grandstanding, romanticizing war and another desperate attempt at keeping a dying world order standing for just a bit longer.
• Ramzy Baroud has been writing about the Middle East for over 20 years. He is an internationally syndicated columnist, a media consultant, an author of several books, and the founder of PalestineChronicle.com. Twitter: @RamzyBaroud
• Romana Rubeo, an Italian writer, contributed to this article