Real Leaders

Trump Relishing World’s Attention at U.N.

With other major leaders absent, the U.S. president enjoys being the main attraction.

For better or for worse, Donald Trump is dominating the United Nations this week. And he seems to be loving it.

While every U.S. president looms large at the annual mosh pit of world leaders known as the U.N. General Assembly, Trump may be a uniquely dominant presence thanks to his brash style and controversial views, and to an unusual lack of competition: Global titans like Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are all absent this year.

Trump’s Tuesday address here annoyed allies and adversaries with bellicose rhetoric, like his threat to “totally destroy” North Korea. But Trump seemed to relish telling off rival nations whose diplomats were seated within a stone’s throw of him.

And despite the verbal bombshells from the podium, Trump has been playing diplomat behind the scenes with a gusto that might surprise his critics, White House aides say.

“People want to meet him because he’s got star power,” one White House official said. “And he is sort of warm in a more intimate setting. He still says the same things, but he tries to be everyone’s friend. He wants everyone to like him.”

Rather than take Twitter potshots at an institution he denounced while he was a candidate, Trump has shown signs of enthusiasm and even awe about the week’s diplomatic bustle.

“Big meetings today at the United Nations. So many interesting leaders,” Trump tweeted Wednesday morning.

He then began a series of meetings with African and Arab leaders, the latter including Jordan’s King Abdullah, who assured him that “Jordan will always stand beside your country,” and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas.

Trump’s aides say the Republican president is staying largely on script and on schedule and that he seems honored that his home city of New York is hosting world leaders.

The absence of Putin, Xi and Merkel has meant less direct, on-the-scene pushback from those powerful leaders against Trump’s Tuesday address, in which he extolled the virtues of national sovereignty, trumpeted his America First philosophy, and slammed “rogue” regimes like North Korea’s.

“He refused to mouth the usual U.N. platitudes and to dilute his message, and why should he?” said Elliott Abrams, a conservative foreign policy thinker who worked in the George W. Bush administration. “Would Utopian visions and sweet talk have made the slightest impact on the way China or Russia or Iran or North Korea conduct themselves?”

To be sure, Trump’s Tuesday remarks drew plenty of backlash.

Iran’s foreign minister called Trump’s words “ignorant hate speech.” North Korea’s ambassador reportedly left the room just before Trump spoke. Venezuela’s representatives sat looking sour with their arms crossed; Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, an increasingly isolated figure internationally, didn’t come to New York but called Trump “the new Hitler.”

Even some allies were wary. The Swedish foreign minister, reflecting the views of many on the left, told the BBC that Trump delivered “the wrong speech, at the wrong time, to the wrong audience.”

But at the same time, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, a major supporter of Trump, lauded the U.S. president’s speech as “brave and clear.”

And Trump aides note that the president earned praise from fellow Republicans, including some longtime skeptics, for his unapologetic nationalist themes before the international audience.

If anything, Trump’s U.N. appearance supports the idea that the only predictable thing about him is that he’s unpredictable.

On Monday, for instance, he charmed world leaders with a short, gracious speech about the need for U.N. reform. But Tuesday’s speech was all about bombast.

Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert with the European Council on Foreign Relations, said the danger of trying to explain Trump is that it’s easy to be distracted by his more outrageous comments and miss the subtleties.

For instance, Trump was relatively kind to Russia and China, making only fleeting references to their actions in Ukraine and the South China Sea.

And for all his talk of the importance of national sovereignty, Trump is learning he needs international help.

“It’s important to distinguish between Trump’s targeted bluster and the realities of U.N. diplomacy,” Gowan said. “Trump can keep calling North Korean leader Kim Jong Un silly names, but he still needs the U.N. Security Council to back him up on dealing with North Korea.” 

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