Weaponized Communication at the UN: Talking With Richard Falk

Photo Source Patrick Gruban | CC BY 2.0

Daniel Falcone: What are your general thoughts on Trump’s recent UN talk and how world opinion received it? What do you regard as the central theme? Trump seems determined to be one of the more militaristic statesmen in recent history while claiming to be an anti-establishment politician. What are your thoughts on what Trump said and were you surprised that certain diplomatic issues were left unsaid by the president?

Richard Falk: The Trump speech at the UN this year was a virtual mirror image of Trump’s overall political profile, slightly embellished by some idealistic sentiments of an abstract and vague character, and if the content analyzed, revealing glaring tensions between its abstractions and the concrete lines of policy being advocated.

At the same time, if compared with Trump’s first speech to the General Assembly a year earlier, it was somewhat less belligerent except with respect to Iran, a bit more ingratiating to other members and to the UN as an organization, yet essentially unchanged so far as its essential features of policy and prescription are concerned.

A central theme articulated by Trump throughout the speech and strongly stressed at the beginning and end was the primacy of a sovereignty-centered world order based on territorial nation-states. This amounts to a strong affirmation of Westphalian ideas of world order as these have evolved in Europe since the middle of the 17thcentury. The essential tone of the speech was awkwardly encapsulated in this pithy statement: “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.”

It is far from clear what is meant by ‘the ideology of globalism,’ although it can be inferred from other formulations in the text, that it means rejecting any outlook that puts the region or world ahead of the interests of individual sovereign states. Trump leaves no doubt about this: “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.”

As an emotional embodiment of this state-centric worldview is Trump’s stress, unusual in his wording, on ‘the doctrine of patriotism.’ Again, the meaning is clear even if the words chosen are rather odd. There is no doctrine of patriotism lying about waiting to be adopted. A claim of patriotism is normally associated with expressions of overriding, sometime blind, loyalty to a particular national political community, especially in relation to war and in terms of making sacrifices and lending support to one’s own country in situations of international conflict.

Against such a background, Trump’s next move in his address to this UN audience is exactly what we have come to expect from him. First, putting America forward as a model nation that demonstrates to the world what can, be achieved by way constitutional stability and prosperity, and what other states should mimic if they seek the best possible future for their respective societies.

And secondly, insisting that America will respect the sovereignty of others and cooperate for mutual benefits, but only on the basis of reciprocity and based on what he deems as fair, which require some drastic course corrections within and without the UN. Trump in his now familiar framing contends that the U.S. has in the past borne a disproportionate share of financial burdens at the UN, and elsewhere, but vows that this will not continue in the future. Whether in trade relations or foreign economic assistance, the United States will demand not only good balance sheet results, but shows of political support from those that are beneficiaries of American largesse.

Where Trump tramples on protocol, so much so that his comments provoke derisive laughter from the assembled delegates, occurs when he boasts so grossly about the achievements of his presidency. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any other administration in the history of our country.” To give more tangible grounds for this extraordinary moment of self-congratulation with representatives of the governments of the entire world sitting in front of him, Trump claims “America’s economy is booming as never before.” To substantiate such a boast Trump points to the record highs of the stock market and historic lows for unemployment, especially for minorities. He also points to counterterrorism successes in Syria and Afghanistan, and to border security in relation to illegal migration.

Maybe most distressing in the context of telling this global audience about how well the United States is doing under his leadership is Trump’s seeking credit for unabashed embrace of militarism. He speaks with pride, rather than shame, of record spending of $700 billion for the military budget, to be increased in the following year to $716 billion. Such expenditures are announced with no felt need for a security justification beyond the bald assertion “[our] military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been.”

There is here an unintended hint of a globalist element. Trump asserts his familiar trope that “[we] are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.” In other words, American militarism is a win/win proposition for all nations, provided, of course, that they are not identified as enemies to be sanctioned and destabilized from within and without.

I was also struck by what Trump left unsaid in his speech. There was no reference to his supposed ‘deal of the century’ with its pledge to deliver an enduring peace to Israel and Palestine. I can only wonder whether the evident content of the approach being long prepared by the White House seems so politically unacceptable that it has either been shelved or is in the process of being repackaged. Although it is probably foolish to speculate, the Kushner/Greenblatt/Friedman plan according to what is known, involved an unpalatable mixture of ‘economic peace’ incentives with some sort of arrangement to transfer Gaza to the governmental authority of Jordan and Egypt.

In effect, this strikes me as a pseudo-diplomatic version of the ‘Victory Caucus’ promoted so vigorously by Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum, but for the sake of appearances made to seem as if a new peace process. For Pipes, the road to peace is based on the prior renunciation of Palestinian political aspirations coupled with the acknowledgement both Israel is a state of the Jewish people and that international diplomacy had been tried within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years, and failed.

The Trump approach appears to want a similar outcome, but seeks to reach such a finishing line by creating in advance a set of political conditions favorable to Israel and offering a different set of inducements to the Palestinians if they will kneel down politically. This approach had been signaled by adopting the Israeli line on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, UNRWA, and Gaza, yet in UN venue Trump uses uncharacteristically cautious language, expressing only the faintest hope that some kind of solution will mysteriously issue forth: “The United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That aim is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Among the most ‘obvious facts’ is the provocative announcement of the intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem last December.

Perhaps, the most notable change from Trump’s remarks of the prior year is his praise of Jung-un Kim for taking denuclearizing steps. The prior year Kim was insultingly called ‘the rocket man’ and his government demeaned as a ‘depraved regime.’ This year Trump seemed to be suggesting, and even thanking neighboring countries for their support, that there exists, thanks of course to his bold diplomacy, the best chance ever that a peaceful transition will occur to a unified Korea devoid of any threat of a war fought with nuclear weaponry.

Not surprisingly, also, there was not a word mentioned in Trump’s lengthy speech about climate change, or the need for enhanced lawmaking treaties to solve global challenges. What the UN should be content to do is to provide meeting spaces for geopolitical leaders to address the peoples of the world while enjoying what the great city of New York has to offer by way of restaurants and culture. In this view the real role of the UN is to give geopolitical actors a convenient venue to pursue their foreign policy ambitions.

To give an inevitable Orwellian spin to a speech that at several points lauds democratic forms of governance as the only legitimate way to structure state/society relations, Trump singles out four countries with notably autocratic leaders for positive recognition near the close of his remarks: India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Poland in that order. If we ask ‘what do these otherwise dissimilar states have in common’? The answer is certainly not democracy, as none are ‘democratic’ in any satisfactory sense. The obvious answer is ‘having autocratic leadership.’ The best answer is ‘they all have favorable relations with Trump’s America,’ but not due to their democratic credentials. Indians refer to Modi as ‘our Trump,’ Saudi Arabia is as repressive as any state on earth, Israel maintains an apartheid state to keep Palestinians under oppressive control while it establishes an exclusivist Jewish state in what was not so long ago a non-Jewish society, and Poland is harsh toward refugees and generally repressive toward dissent.

Apart from Netanyahu and other authoritarian leaders, there was little in Trump’s speech that would appeal to foreign leaders, other than his show of respect for his gesture of respect for the sovereign rights of other states, his only applause line. It was essentially a speech telling the world that it had taken Trump only two years to make America great again. And it other states seek greatness, their leaders should rely on the Trump formula: abandon globalism, choose patriotism. Such an empty, anachronistic message was properly unheeded by those who quietly stayed in their seats throughout the speech.

Daniel Falcone: Can you talk about how Trump manages to be such an effective politician at his rallies yet fails to parlay this to successful UN addresses?

Richard Falk: In his rallies, Trump performs as a fiery demagogue to the delight of his populist base drawn from right-wing America. His audience consists mainly of white working class supporters who have reason to feel enraged and victimized by the regressive internationalism of the American political establishment, whether Democratic or Republican. Despite his wealth Trump successfully projects an anti-establishment posture that has captured the Republican mainstream, partly by promoting economic nationalism, and has managed to neutralize the internationalism of Wall Street by claiming credit for the stock market rise while tearing down the liberal global order so carefully constructed by bankers and corporate giants ever since 1945.

This demagogic appeal is furthered bolstered by promising a robust sovereignty-oriented nationalism in which the rights and interests of Americans will be given the highest priorities, illegals deported, Muslims kept out, and dog whistles of approval given to racism. Trump promises that these policies will be embodied in economic arrangements that are capable of keeping jobs in America and encouraging capital investment at home by giving windfall benefits to entrepreneurs of environmental and social protection deregulation.

Such an abandonment of internationalism in rhetoric and policy has nothing to please most other countries. Its foundation is militarism, and pledges to back up its threats with missiles, ultimately playing the role of geopolitical bully at the UN and elsewhere. This is a departure from the avowals of American leaders since World War II to provide enlightened global leadership that is beneficial to the whole world, and can fairly be described as a brand of globalism.

Daniel Falcone: Trump might feed his base by disrespecting the international community but at some point this is not sustainable correct?

Richard Falk: So far Trump has not paid a high price for ignoring global challenges such as climate change, nuclear-ism, famine, global migration and refugee flows, and global inequalities, but days of reckoning will come, and when they do the costs of his version of militant nationalism will be extremely high, and likely unmanageable without chaos and catastrophe. In this basic sense, the reaffirmation of nationalism as the only acceptable political model for this century is to fiddle while the planet burns. His repudiation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement, as well as his denunciation of the ICC and the HRC are normative retreats from the fledgling efforts to construct a world community based on the rule of law.

Daniel Falcone: Trump continues to shock and frighten the world regarding Venezuela, Cuba and Iran with antiquated threats of sanctions and continued hostility. Furthermore, Trump has no method to the madness it seems re: China and Canada in terms of trade. Can you discuss how we we’ve become a “laughing stock” on a world stage?

Richard Falk: Instead of being a laughing stock, it is more realistic to view Trump’s America as bringing tears to the eyes of those who care about present human suffering and future prospects for peace, human rights, global justice, and ecological sustainability. What we need is an equitable globalism that is dedicated to safeguarding and promoting human interests. What we don’t need is a militarized patriotism that builds walls of exclusion and criminalizes socialist governments while turning a blind eye to bloody autocrats, which seems to be the rough guidelines shaping Trump’s language, and most of his policies.

The UN was affirmed by Trump so long as it operated according to this template based on the interaction of sovereign states that were dedicated above all to maximizing the benefits of international cooperation for their own national societies. Two caveats along the way qualified this endorsement of sovereign rights.

First, they do not apply to ideological and geopolitical adversaries of the United States and its allies, hence, the justification of sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, regimes which were singled out to express Trump’s view that socialism inevitably produces misery and deserves no respect of its sovereignty. This ideological provincialism, which hearkens back to the hawkish ideologues of the Cold War Era, is couple with the vitriolic repudiation of the sovereign rights of Iran, which is blamed for exporting terrorism throughout the Middle East and ruling its own people with an iron fist. What follows is not grudging respect for the sovereignty of such miscreant states, but escalating sanctions.

Secondly, Trump claims that the U.S. has in the past borne an unfair share of UN expenses, and as with trade and other international arrangements, and this must stop. In the Trump future cooperation will only be possible if this situation is corrected, while making sure that the Organization behaves in ways that correspond with the wishes of its largest financial contributor. As well, Trump singled out the UN Human Rights Council [HRC] and the International Criminal Court [ICC] for harsh criticism as falling below acceptable behavior. Trump refers to the embarrassment associated with the fact that the elected membership of the HRC includes governments with terrible human rights records, an observation that has some merit.

And with the ICC no words of rejection are strong enough for Trump, but the following language is chosen for the task: “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureau.” Such sentiments amount to the death knell of all prospects for a global rule of law.


Daniel Falcone is a teacher, journalist, and PhD student in the World History program at St. John’s University in Jamaica, NY as well as a member of the Democratic Socialists of America. He resides in New York City.