But Trump also chided the North Korean regime for its brutal repression of its own people, and warned that Washington will never accept its nuclear program. By threatening to “blow up” North Korea, he repeated that the military option remains on the table, but that a diplomatic process spearheaded by the UN Security Council — with the support of Russia and China — remains his preferred choice.
Before Trump’s UN address, US Defense Secretary James Mattis told the Wall Street Journal that Washington has “military options available for North Korea that would not put South Korea at grave risk of counterattack,” but declined to elaborate.
Between Trump’s UN speech and Mattis’s warning, the US administration is signaling that it has a coherent strategy vis-a-vis the North Korean threat — presented by its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile program — and that a military option would be used as leverage to ensure that the difficult diplomatic process with Pyongyang can move forward without repeating decades of failed US policy on the matter.
On Iran, Trump reiterated his well-known criticism of the nuclear deal, but stopped short of calling for its abolition. However, he continued to push back on Tehran’s destabilizing regional policies, including by chiding its role in Syria and Yemen.
Trump remained lukewarm about an increased US role in the Syrian conflict, leaving observers to conclude that the reconciliation process will probably continue to be spearheaded by Russia and Turkey. But he left little doubt about the illegitimacy of the Syrian regime, and repeated his warning that further chemical attacks against the Syrian people or any other atrocities would not be tolerated by the US.
Trump’s ability to match rhetoric on the Syria issue with concrete action — as demonstrated by his limited military strike against the regime after it used chemical weapons against its own people in April — is not only a departure from the policies of the Obama administration, but also signals to the North Korean leadership that Washington’s military option against Pyongyang is not just a hollow threat.
Given Trump’s well-known disregard for traditional US diplomatic norms and practices, his speech was unlike any given by his predecessors. It should be considered a major improvement on his previous speeches, especially his dark inaugural address in January, as he refrained from UN bashing and outlined a coherent vision, whether or not one agrees with it.
The speech was not only about threatening North Korea, which certainly many commentators will focus on — and condemn, as it is fashionable and politically correct to trash everything Trump says; but it also outlined his administration’s goals for international security. Regardless of whether one supports Trump’s style, his address was a significant improvement and could even be considered presidential.
His message at the UN was clear: America’s global leadership is here to stay, and every ally is expected to step up and do its part.
Trump, however, also demonstrated consistency in his support for the 80-year-old US-Saudi strategic alliance and his commitment to strengthening regional anti-terrorism cooperation by repeating his core principles from the Riyadh Summit in May.
“In Saudi Arabia early last year, I was greatly honored to address the leaders of more than 50 Arab and Muslim nations. We agreed that all responsible nations must work together to confront terrorists and the Islamic extremism that inspires them. We will stop radical Islamic terrorism because we cannot allow it to tear up our nation, and indeed, to tear up the entire world. We must deny the terrorists safe haven, transit, funding and any form of support for their vile and sinister ideology. We must drive them out of our nations,” Trump said.
He did not, however, address the continuing dispute between Qatar and its Gulf neighbors, and neither did he mention his well-known policy objective to accelerate the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
All things considered, for those who had given up on Trump’s ability to pivot from a controversial showman turned divisive president, as witnessed by his first eight months in office, his General Assembly address should be considered nothing short of transformational. It put forward a positive vision of what the international community can achieve collectively, spearheaded by US global leadership. Whether this transformation will last or whether he will revert back to his controversial style of chiding domestic political opponents — be it the US media, Democrats or illegal immigrants — is, of course, unclear.
What is certain, however, is that North Korea remains Washington’s top foreign policy priority with the Iranian threat to regional stability a distant second.
If Trump follows through on his UN address, international leaders and US allies — in Europe, the Gulf or Asia — should have little doubt of continued US global leadership, but with a caveat; every US ally is expected to step up when it comes to enhancing global burden-sharing so that the common goals of humanity can be achieved.
• Sigurd Neubauer is a Middle East analyst based in Washington, D.C.