Updated: Apr 7, 2020
by Cassandra Varanka
President Donald Trump at the 2018 United Nations General Assembly
This week launched the 73rd session of the United Nations General Debate. While Twitter users may have gotten stuck on the opening two minutes of President Trump’s speech in which the UN General Assembly openly laughed at the President — and by extension, America — there were moments of far greater significance for the future of nuclear nonproliferation and international peace that warrant some time and attention. President Trump put his cards on the table as he stood before the General Assembly: under his leadership, America stands alone and is spoiling for a fight.
As in so many of President Trump’s speeches, one of the overarching themes was America first. President Trump emphasized America’s sovereignty and announced to the world that the United States would not and could not be constrained by international norms and cooperation. President Trump touted the increases in the United State’s military spending, promising that our military will be more powerful than it has ever been before, while also noting that “we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defense.” Our aggressive military spending is for the benefit of our sovereignty, and no one else’s.
The focus on the utmost sanctity of the sovereignty of the United States felt particularly uncomfortable when paired with President’s comments about Iran. After trashing the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), it was unsurprising that President Trump failed to acknowledge Iran’s continued adherence to the nuclear deal or our allies’ continued support for it. President Trump then shamelessly advocated for regime change in Iran. He attempted to justify this attack on Iran’s sovereignty by basing it in some great concern for the Iranian people. This coming from the same president that banned Iranians from obtaining visas for entry to the United States.
President Rouhani of Iran also addressed the General Assembly yesterday, and he wasted no time in responding to the comments by President Trump. He noted, “it is ironic that the US government does not even conceal its plan for overthrowing the same government it invites to talks.” President Rouhani questioned how the international community could continue to engage with a country that fails to uphold agreements. The theme of what to do with a rogue United States was also present in today’s United Nations Security Council Meeting.
The agenda of the UNSC meeting was to address nuclear non-proliferation issues. Originally, the agenda proposed by the United States for the Security Council meeting was to “address Iran’s violations of international law and the general instability Iran sows throughout the entire Middle East region.” But France and the United Kingdom quietly made clear that if that were the topic, they would have no choice but to take Iran’s side and defend the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. The agenda was subsequently broadened to the overarching topic of countering nuclear proliferation. Not a bad thing, considering it opened the floor to highlight the progress made toward ratifying the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons and how to further engage with North Korea and encourage the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The other advantage of broadening the topic? It prevented Iran from participating. Under United Nations Security Council rules, non-parties can attend if they are “party to a dispute under consideration.”
Even with the change of agenda, President Trump went right to attacking the JCPOA in his opening remarks, instead promoting the re-imposition of sanctions. President Macron of France spoke next, calling for unity and pushing back on the idea that sanctions alone make up a solid policy. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov declared that the United States’ violation of the Iran nuclear deal creates a “serious threat,” and noted that Russia maintains its support for the deal. Other countries weren’t as subtle. Bolivia’s President, Evo Morales, all but lectured President Trump in the meeting, “categorically condemning” the United States’ violation of the JCPOA. President Morales also noted the United States’ history of invading countries under the guise of human rights to hide ulterior motives. It was clear that President Morales saw President Trump’s speech before the UNGA for exactly what it was: an attempt to build a case for war with Iran.
Among the fifteen countries represented at the UNSC meeting, the United States stood alone in its assertion that the JCPOA had failed. All but the United States agree that it was, in fact, the United States that had failed the JCPOA. To what purpose? Not all of the countries in attendance were as bold as Bolivia in drawing parallels between the United States’ historic actions and the rhetoric being used today, but they heard him. Let’s hope they act accordingly, and refuse to let the United States rally others to the cause of war.