If all eyes will be on President Trump when he rises to the podium of the gold-and-green-marbled United Nations General Assembly auditorium Tuesday morning, it is in part for reasons that have been true since the UN arose from the ashes of World War II.
First, because the president of the United States leads the most powerful nation on earth.
But beyond that, because the American president – also since World War II known as the leader of the free world – has for seven decades led, supported, and generally sought to strengthen the liberal order of international laws and institutions of which the UN is a part.
That order, while far from perfect, has played a role in delivering unprecedented world peace and prosperity.
But Mr. Trump, the America First president, is different from any postwar president before him in that he not only shows little interest in leading that global order his predecessors built, many international relations experts say, but indeed seems focused on dismantling it.
“What we’ve learned in the 18 months of Donald Trump’s presidency is that the word ‘leadership’ is not part of his vocabulary, nor is America as ‘leader of the free world’ a concept he’s shown much interest in,” says Ivo Daalder, who was the US ambassador to NATO under President Barack Obama.
“Instead of leading in the world he talks about winning in the world, and that goes for our relations with allies as well as with adversaries,” adds Mr. Daalder, now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
“There’s no conception of working with others to get them on board with America’s vision or bringing them around to our point of view.”
Moreover, Trump is likely to go farther in his UN speech this year on the theme of national sovereignty over international institutions and cooperation that he highlighted last year, some international relations experts say.
One reason for this expectation is Trump is seen as “unleashed” after firing a number of national security aides who differed with him, and more confident of his intuitions in his second year in office.
“Trump’s [UN] speech a year ago was actually helpful, because it gave people around the world a look at the new American president and where he’s coming from – that he really does want to go back to a world of hard sovereign nations and … to take down the liberal international order,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
Noting that Trump since that speech has brought in new advisers more in line with his nationalist ideological outlook – including national security adviser John Bolton – Mr. Kupchan says he expects the president in his speech this year to “double down” on his America First vision rather than softening it.
“It’s not that he’s a transactional president demanding a better deal,” as Kupchan says he originally thought about Trump. Instead he now sees a president “whose driving perspective is, ‘I’m tired of presiding over a country that has its lunch eaten every day because it’s taking care of others.… I want out of a global order that has put us in that weak position.’ ”
As a result, he says that “If anything, [this year’s speech] will have even sharper edges.”
Indeed Nikki Haley, the US ambassador to the UN, told reporters last week that Trump will deliver a speech on a theme of “protecting US sovereignty.”
Offering as evidence of the president’s focus his withdrawal of the US from numerous international bodies and accords, including the Paris climate accord and the Global Compact for Migration, Ambassador Haley said Trump rejects such international agreements for placing unfair burdens on the US and imposing mandates on the US that run counter to Trump administration policies.
The president plans to spend four days in New York, longer than last year, presiding over a Security Council session on nonproliferation and sovereignty, and holding a hefty number of bilateral meetings with world leaders.
Reasserting US interests
Not everyone agrees that Trump is withdrawing the US from its role as world leader. Rather, some see Trump favoring a muscular approach to issues ranging from nuclear proliferation and chemical weapons to global trade, based on US national interests and the might of the world’s sole superpower.
“Trump is trying to reassert American interests as he sees them and to recalibrate the recourse to US power,” says Robert Lieber, a professor of government and international affairs at Georgetown University in Washington.
“At the same time, he sees the US carrying burdens that are unfair and beyond what we can continue to bear.”
Operating from the standpoint of those two motivating principles, Trump is getting things “mostly right,” Professor Lieber says: from enforcing the red line on chemical-weapons use in Syria that President Obama laid down but then failed to enforce; to getting the US out of a “weak” Iran nuclear deal; to pressing allies in NATO to step up on defense spending; and confronting China over its predatory trade practices.
Where Lieber most adamantly diverges with Trump is over the president’s “demonizing” of allies, including many of America’s best friends. And he says his objection to attacking allies as ferociously (or more so) as adversaries is not based on sentimentality but on hard realities.
“We’re still the most powerful nation on earth, but the margin of our power vis-à-vis others – particularly China – has eroded,” he says. “So we need allies to work with us to help us achieve our goals.”
Lieber says America’s global leadership has been based on an “enlightened self-interest” that recognized the logic of sharing in the security, economic, and other benefits of that leadership, but he adds: “I don’t think Trump grasps that concept at all.”
Look for new leadership
Even some Trump critics who disagree with his confrontational approach to American global leadership say there have been benefits from the president’s reassertion of power and his particular approach to global affairs.
Kupchan of the Council on Foreign Relations says it was “high time” the US stood up to China on trade – but he says that instead of “going it alone” Trump should have taken advantage of America’s economic heft and leadership to rally the Europeans, Japanese, and others to the cause. “Instead he’s picking a trade fight with everybody,” he says.
He also commends Trump for placing a spotlight on “the big question of our time, which is what are average workers in industrial societies going to do to earn a living wage?” But he says Trump’s nationalist remedies “aren’t the right answer” for an issue of global scale.
Others say that the world is not going to stop looking for global leadership and devising ways of cooperating on shared problems just because the US is pulling back from its traditional role.
The risk, they add, is that the ways the world proceeds and the leadership alternatives it turns to may not be to America’s liking.
“The longer the US abdicates its global leadership, the more countervailing forces are going to strengthen or be tempted to fill the vacuum and take control,” says Daalder, who recently co-authored the book “The Empty Throne,” which looks at the consequences of the US retreat from its postwar leadership role.
On one hand, Daalder sees China and to a lesser extent Russia taking advantage of the US retreat from leadership to assert their own visions of global order – more authoritarian and less free than the US-led system.
On the other, he foresees other countries and communities like the European Union “banding together” to pursue cooperative arrangements and international accords – whether it’s the EU negotiating new trade agreements or Asian-Pacific countries proceeding on the Trans-Pacific Partnership minus the US.
Defense of multilateralism
Indeed, some experts say they expect to see signs of that “banding together” in response to Trump’s withdrawal from global leadership in the speeches that other leaders give at the UN General Assembly this week.
“What will be very interesting … will be to listen to the other leaders [because] if last year was the year of sovereignty, this in some ways will be the year of defense of multilateralism,” says Heather Conley, director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
Noting that other countries are expected to use the week of high-level diplomatic encounters to meet on everything from advancing the Paris climate accord and salvaging the Iran nuclear deal to working around US aid cuts to the Palestinians, she adds, “It will be interesting to see if the US position is increasingly isolated.”
Kupchan says that what is more troubling in his view than deepening US isolation and a US retreat from leadership is how the US instead is in some ways exhibiting some of the worst tendencies that the world has looked to it to help remedy.
“With the forces of nationalism and nativism and racism and intolerance surging everywhere you look,” he says, “it’s very concerning that the United States appears to have joined the bandwagon rather than fought back against it in the manner that many people around the world have come to expect.”