Published on October 11, 2018
By Peter J. Hoffman
US President Donald Trump’s alarming speech at the opening of the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday, September 25 was a powerful reminder of the US’s isolationist path on the world’s highest stage and echoed the ominous statements Hitler made during the 1930s regarding the League of Nations. Hitler’s politics of extrapolating from the frustrations of nationalists to build his support targeted the League. In a similar fashion, Trump blew the right-wing dog whistle, which at the frequency heard in international politics unapologetically preaches unfettered sovereignty and great power flexing. Both Hitler and Trump showed contempt for liberal world order; there is no value in cooperation, every state is looking out for themselves, international organizations are the problem. Three snippets are revealing:
First, Trump signaled that recognition of nationalism was central to world order.
We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable body. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the ideology of patriotism.
This is reminiscent of Hitler’s January 30, 1937 critique of the League of Nations as irrelevant if it cannot accommodate nationalist impulses:
If in our time some other institution is to take the place of this power for the purpose or regulating relations between the peoples, then it must take account of natural vital claims and decide accordingly.
Second, Trump’s contended that global governance is to be under the sway of foreigners and undermines sovereignty.
… America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination. I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship. We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.
In a May 21, 1935 speech, Hitler stressed independence and isolationism:
We National Socialists believe a man can, in the long run, be happy only among his own people… We National Socialists grant each people the right to its own inner life according to its needs and its own nature.
Third, Trump’s boast of US military might was the implicit threat to other countries that his domestic political base craves and celebrates his own role.
We have secured record funding for our military, $700 billion this year, and $716billion next year. Our military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been before. In other words, the United States is stronger, safer, and a richer country than it was when I assumed office less than two years ago.
In a December 11, 1941 speech declaring war on the United States, Hitler made a comparable declaration—note he also associates his greatness with his country’s greatness and vis versa:
Today I am at the head of the strongest Army in the world, the most gigantic Air Force and of a proud Navy. Behind and around me stands the Party with which I became great and which has become great through me…
That Trump was reenacting fascist dismissal of global governance for domestic consumption was not lost on those in attendance. French President Emmanuel Macron made a veiled but obvious reference in lamenting “certain nationalism which we’re seeing today, brandishing sovereignty as a way of attacking others.” More sharply and explicitly, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani commented:
It is unfortunate that we are witnessing rulers in the world ride public sentiments and gain popular support through the fomenting of extremist nationalism and racism and through xenophobic tendencies resembling a Nazi disposition.
However, while there were some parallels to the past, there were also some unique elements of Trump’s speech. After bragging about his accomplishments, the representatives of the world’s governments laughed at him. Not “with” the speaker, but “at” him. Trump was openly ridiculed in an unprecedent fashion for the whole world to see. Trump, to his credit, actually, and perhaps unintentionally, handled it well by offering candor, “I did not expect that reaction, that is ok.” In response to this admission of a human foible, the audience then seem to turn and laughed with him, showing appreciation that he recognized he had misjudged the room. It was an amazing spectacle of a political salesman losing the crowd and then seemingly getting them back in the span of under a minute.
While many will reference this moment of reality show diplomacy, it is fundamentally overshadowed by the subsequent grave speech. Indeed, after this initial public humiliation, Trump almost certainly relished the immediate opportunity to heap scorn on the UN. Moreover, I would be surprised if Trump is in fact “ok” with this, the past shows he is enormously insecure and is enraged at being laughed at or humiliated, so there will likely be some sort of political payback to the UN, and especially to those who laughed, if he can have his intelligence agencies and diplomats identify them.
Fascism obliterated the League of Nations, and this echo highlights the troubling trajectory of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy that aims to do the same to the United Nations. Trump and his chauvinist bellicose brethren seek to scapegoat the international organization for all societies’ ills, and while it is a compelling narrative and hypnotic spectacle to those who feel left behind in an interconnected cosmopolitan world, it is profoundly dangerous. Like Hitler, Trump believes nationalists will cheer each brick of global governance that comes tumbling down, but if history is any guide, isolationist jubilation will prove ephemeral and haunting because multilateral diplomacy and global governance are what keeps the world from war.
Peter J. Hoffman is Assistant Professor of International Affairs in the Graduate Program in International Affairs, The New School.
Header Image Credit: Eduardo Munoz for Reuters
Body Image Credit: Matt A. Johnson