By Bloomberg’s Editorial Board
For President Donald Trump, apparently, encouraging greater international cooperation is not as important as getting off a good insult. In his first speech to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump threatened to “totally destroy North Korea” in the event of war and repeated his latest derogatory nickname for its leader, Kim Jong Un: “Rocket Man.”
Trump’s rhetoric, as well as his many references to the importance of sovereignty, will strike a chord with his American base of support. Before this audience, however, the style was inappropriate — and the substance was puzzling. If the UN is such a threat to the sovereignty of its largest funder, for example, why has the U.S. seen fit to veto only one out of more than 600 United Nations Security Council Resolutions in the last 10 years?
Moreover, the scorn in Trump’s speech for “unaccountable international tribunals and powerful global bureaucracies” ignores the reality that, at their best, the thousands of multilateral agreements the U.S. has signed have helped it meet challenges to sovereignty that no nation can meet by itself: the spread of communicable diseases, corruption, or weapons of mass destruction, for example. The existential threat of climate change — which Trump failed to mention — is another case in point.
With his focus on sovereignty, Trump also downplayed the UN’s role as a force for spreading universal values, something that its American creators championed. Trump even saw fit to praise the U.S. Constitution’s “first three beautiful words” — neglecting to note that the UN Charter begins with a deliberate echo, “We the peoples.”
It’s all well and good to celebrate the contributions of “strong, sovereign nations” and to say that “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone.” But if you’re going to take on North Korea, Iran and Venezuela — or counter the influence of opaque autocracies like China and Russia — then it makes sense to start by pressing them to live up to the founding ideals of the charter.
None of this is to say that the UN doesn’t need reform, which Trump to his credit pushed for. He was also right to draw forceful attention to the growing threats posed by Iran, North Korea and Venezuela.
But his overheated speech will make mustering support for both causes harder. Threatening a country with annihilation won’t hearten its neighbors. And undermining the founding principles of an institution your nation did more than any other to establish won’t help it to fulfill its promise.