1) War is more likely than it was before his speech
This was the first time that I can recall a US president threatening to destroy a country from the podium of the United Nations. Belittling Kim Jong Un as “rocket man,” and invoking an extremely bellicose posture could have the effect of dividing what has been a remarkably united international community in confronting North Korea. For the past several weeks, US diplomats have successfully pushed through an increasingly stringent set of sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear and missile activities. These measures have passed with the unanimous support of the Security Council, meaning China and Russia are on board. Trump’s threats could divide what has been a united Security Council and make diplomacy much, much more difficult. The alternative to diplomacy is war. To the extent that these remarks undermine diplomatic efforts, they make conflict more likely.
2) The Sovereignty of Countries is Superior to the Rights of Its People
Trump repeatedly stressed the sovereignty of nations. “Sovereignty” as it is typically interpreted at the United Nations means that other countries do not have the right, legal or otherwise, to dictate what countries should do inside their borders. China has historically been a key defender of this principle, often taking a hard line (and invoking its veto) when it thinks that this kind of interpretation of sovereignty is being violated. On the other side of the “sovereignty” debate has historically been human rights defenders, who seek to use international forums like the UN protect people from their governments. While Trump repeatedly invoked sovereignty, he did not invoke the universality of human rights, which is a tone that every recent US president has stressed from the UN podium.
3) A positive note for UN Peacekeeping and UN funding.
Trump did have some encouraging things to say about certain functions of the UN. He called UN peacekeeping “invaluable,” and suggested that the UN could be a great investment for the United States if it were better able to live up to its promises. These remarks build on a very positive tone Trump set yesterday when he gave a full throated endorsement of the Antonio Guterres and his management reform agenda.
4) A very a bad sign for refugee resettlement
In the weeks leading up to this speech, there were rumors that the United States would seek to lower its cap on refugees admitted for resettlement to the lowest level in decades, to about 40,000. In his speech, Trump suggested that there was a financial incentive to do so: that the cost of resettling a refugee to the United States was ten times that of the cost of caring for a refugee in the country to which she fled. This could be true, but it is also the case that refugees who are eligible for resettlement to a third country (which amounts to about 1% of the total global refugee population) are ipso-facto unable to remain in their host country. Individuals that the UN Refugee Agency designates as eligible for resettlement are people who are extremely vulnerable: including LGBTI people, people with physical disability, torture victims, or others who face certain hardships that are far more extreme than their fellow refugees. That President Trump believes these people can remain in their host country and need not be resettled demonstrates that he does not understand how or why refugees come to the United States.
5) The Iran Nuclear Deal is is Dead
Donald Trump made clear on the campaign trail that he would pull out of the Iran Nuclear Deal–known formally as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). In his speech today he strongly suggested that a decision was imminent, and that decision would be to renege on the agreement. The JCPOA, though, was endorsed by the entire Security Council, meaning that pulling out of this deal would also isolate the United States from its allies (and even from its adversaries) who still see the deal as the best way to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency last week certified that Iran was, indeed, complying with the nuclear deal and not diverting its nuclear energy program for military use or bomb making. In other words, the deal is working. Trump, though, made explicitely clear that he intends to blow it up.
6) What Trump did not mention
Despite his invocation of sovereignty as the core feature of international relations, Trump had no words to say about a very blatant example of one country violating the sovereignty of another: Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine. Trump also did not mention the ongoing crisis in Myanmar in which over 400,000 ethnic Rohingyas, who are muslim, have fled across the boarder in what the UN has called a campaign of ethnic cleansing. But I suspect it is no surprise that Trump would overlook that particular ongoing tragedy.