Every single year, the world’s heads-of-state, foreign ministers, and special envoys trudge over to the United Nations building in New York to talk shop and assess the state of the world. Besides snarling traffic in an already congested city, the U.N. General Assembly meeting usually goes off without a hitch — speeches are made, meetings are held, and resolutions are signed. On occasion, someone like a Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or a Cesar Chavez spouts off at the mouth, but the General Assembly meeting is typically a subdued affair.
This year, it was the United States that made unexpected fireworks. President Barack Obama, in his last speech to the General Assembly before he leaves the White House in four months, was no-holds-barred on his favorite target: GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump.
As Politico reported right after the speech, Obama “didn’t say Trump’s name. He didn’t say Make America Great Again. But he didn’t need to,” because hidden in the paragraphs about despots, racism, and xenophobia were not-so-subtle hints that he was talking about the Republican nominee.
There was the warning about an alternative vision of “aggressive nationalism, [and] a crude populism.” There was the call against turning inward to secure America from the impacts of globalization. Obama dismissed Trump’s hallmark promise to build a wall on the Mexican border as a relic of the past, when governments thought keeping their countries safe meant erecting physical barriers to keep miscreants out. “Today, a nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” Obama said.
“[I]n my own life, in this country, and as president, I have learned that our identities do not have to be defined by putting someone else down, but can be enhanced by lifting somebody else up,” Obama continued. “They don’t have to be defined in opposition to others, but rather by a belief in liberty and equality and justice and fairness.”
Mr. Trump, call your office.
The president’s supporters will commend him for being principled in his opposition to fear and divisiveness, and what better way to make the point than in front of the world’s largest bureaucracy. But even if you agree with the message, there is something disconcerting about a president openly bashing a nominee from one of America’s major parties in front of foreign diplomats. While the U.N. is technically on U.S. soil, it is still the U.N., the home of multilateral diplomacy where America’s foreign policy — any nation’s foreign policy — is secondary to the broader problems of the global community. What President Obama did with his speech was to change the U.N. General Assembly from the world’s debating society to an extension of the campaign trail. The line between electioneering and statesmanship was erased.
This is a sentiment Paul Saunders, a former Bush administration official at the State Department and now the executive director at the Center for the National Interest, expressed to me well. Saunders was just as concerned about Obama’s speech yesterday as he was when Obama used the G-7 to label Trump’s rhetoric ignorant and dangerous. He said:
President Obama’s repeated attacks on a U.S. presidential candidate in international fora, including the UN General Assembly, is entirely unpresidential. It is also unnecessary, because foreign leaders can easily see or read the presidents views on Mr. Trump when he expresses them to domestic audiences. Worst of all, however, chastising someone fairly selected to represent one of America’s two major political parties to foreign leaders is functionally equivalent to attacking the U.S. political system as a whole on the world stage. The president is thus in fact undermining what he may think he is defending.
Saunders makes a good point. Obama’s verbal attack was unprecedented in modern times. When George H.W. Bush was in the fight of his political life against Bill Clinton in 1992, he addressed the General Assembly in a way that was consistent with his character: he spoke about the need to reform U.N. peacekeeping and the wonders of the Berlin Wall coming down. President George W. Bush talked about democracy promotion and the necessity of the world coming together to fight terrorism wherever and whenever it pops up. Bill Clinton stressed conflict resolution and preventative diplomacy. None of them injected presidential politics into the U.N.’s agenda.
President Obama chose to break with that precedent. One hopes it doesn’t set a new standard for presidents going forward.