President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the United Nations on Monday morning, during a panel on reforming the organization. Given that Trump’s “America First” view of foreign policy takes a pretty dim view of international organizations, and given the president’s well-known penchant for saying whatever he thinks at the time, there was real fear that this address would go off the rails.
When the president started by talking about Trump Tower’s proximity to the UN building in New York — “I actually saw great potential right across the street” — it seemed like things those fears might end up being vindicated. But they weren’t. Trump’s brief address was about as boring as you’d expect a speech on UN budgeting and personnel procedures to be. Even the strongest criticisms of the UN in the speech were snoozers.
“In recent years, the United Nations has not reached its full potential because of bureaucracy and mismanagement,” Trump said. “We encourage the secretary general to fully use his authority to cut through the bureaucracy, reform outdated systems, and make firm decisions to advance the UN’s core mission.”
Trump also gave the kind of boilerplate praise for the UN that you’d expect from any president.
“The United Nations was founded on truly noble goals,” he said. “The United Nations has helped advance these goals in so many ways: feeding the hungry, providing disaster relief, and empowering women and girls in many societies all across the world.”
While the line about gender equality rings a bit more hollow than it would with another president, it’s clear that when you watch the speech (embedded below) that it was remarkably inoffensive by Trump standards. The biggest gaffe was mispronouncing UN Secretary General António Guterres’s last name (the correct Portuguese pronunciation is “goo-terr-esh;” Trump pronounces it “gutter-ez”):
This is a break with the bulk of Trump’s rhetoric and policy, both of which have been relatively hostile to the UN.
During the campaign, he said that that “the United Nations is not a friend of democracy, it's not a friend to freedom, it's not a friend even to the United States of America.” After taking office, Trump threatened to punish the UN for a resolution condemning Israeli settlements by cutting the US’s contribution to its budget by 40 percent. That didn’t happen, but Trump did make a big anti-UN move by announcing America’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement, the most important international agreement negotiated under UN auspices in recent memory (though there’s some indication he might be shifting on that).
Yet, as Columbia University UN expert Richard Gowan notes in Politico, the president also has said some surprisingly positive things about the UN. He even gone so far as suggesting that the UN could one day serve as a kind of global police organization or court system.
“I see a day when there’s a conflict where the United Nations, you get together, and you solve the conflict,” Trump said during an April 2017 lunch with UN ambassadors. “You just don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts. I think that’s going to start happening now. I can see it.”
Is this a contradiction? Sure! Does it matter? No, not really.
The truth is most likely that, as on many issues, Trump just doesn’t have much in the way of a fixed opinion. He has vague feelings about the UN, some positive and some negative, which don’t really translate into a consistent overarching policy. When it’s something that’s not super high-profile, like a boring UN address on boring UN reform, he’s happy to parrot whatever obviously-prepared-by-aides speech text he’s given.
So I suppose it’s good that Trump’s UN speech was blandly positive. No news-generating international incident is good news. But since the president’s tone could change radically tomorrow or even in the next few minutes, it’s not especially encouraging.