Trump’s ‘rocket man’ speech at UN throws light on US policy

What Trump’s first speech to UN means for US foreign policy and Iran nuclear deal

In one of the most highly-anticipated speeches at the United Nations General Assembly in decades, US president Donald Trump delivered his first speech to a packed chamber in New York on Tuesday.

“Welcome to New York,” he said in his opening remarks. It was certainly a homecoming of sorts. Just across the road from UN headquarters looms the Trump World Tower with its signature black and gold design. Trump has spent much time lambasting the UN, previously condemning its “utter weakness” and dismissing it as a club for people to get together and talk. Over the past two days the talk has been very different. Trump politely set out his plan to “make the United Nations great” at a session on reforming the UN on Monday. Similarly in his set-piece speech on Tuesday, he gestured towards the institution’s long history, describing how the institution was “founded in the aftermath of two World Wars” to help shape a better future.

Tuesday's speech was about projecting the image of Trump the statesman, as he inserted himself into a pantheon of figures who have addressed the general assembly over the decades, lest anyone needed reminding that Donald Trump the businessman turned reality TV star, was now the president of the United States. "For more than 70 years, in times of war and peace, the leaders of nations, movements and religions have stood before this assembly. Like them, I intend to address some of the very serious threats before us today but also the enormous potential waiting to be unleashed," he said.

The speech was an attempt to marry his America First policy with the principles of multilateralism espoused by the UN. The concept of “national sovereignty” was cited several times, with Trump reminding his listeners he would “always put America first just like you, the leaders of your countries, should put your countries first”. It was one of the few statements that was met with applause.


The speech did shed light on some of the specifics of US foreign policy, however, with Trump touching on a range of foreign policy issues.

North Korea

What he said: “Rocket man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”

As expected, North Korea featured heavily in Trump's inaugural speech to the UN, with the US president using the platform to warn Kim Jong-Un that the US would use military force if provoked, though adding, "hopefully this will not be necessary". White House press secretary Sarah Sanders was quick to point out that Barack Obama, as president, had used similar language, citing his words, "we could, obviously, destroy North Korea with our arsenals". But Obama's comments were in the context of a television interview when he was explaining why military force was not the solution. Trump's pledge to "totally destroy" North Korea if provoked marks some of the strongest statements yet by the administration on the nuclear state, while his description of Kim Jong Un as "rocket man" is likely to infuriate the North Korean leader.


What he said: “Frankly, that deal is an embarrassment to the United States, and I don’t think you’ve heard the last of it, believe me.”

Trump's comments on Iran have prompted concern that the US may seek to unravel the Iran nuclear deal, agreed by the so-called P5+1 group of countries (China, France, Russia, UK, US, plus Germany) and the EU in December 2015. So far, the Trump administration has given Iran a clean bill of health during its regular update on its compliance with the terms of the agreement. With the next assessment due on October 15th, there are concerns the US may declare that Iran is non-compliant.

Iran's president Hassan Rouhani, speaking on the fringes of the assembly, refuted this, insisting that Iran was keeping its side of the deal. French president Emmanuel Macron said that not respecting the deal would be "irresponsible" and defended it as a "good deal". Trump's threat to undo the Iran agreement would also raise questions about US commitment to international accords, giving states like North Korea another excuse not to negotiate.


What he said: “The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing.We can’t stand by and watch.”

Trump spent a large chunk of his speech speaking about Venezuela, lambasting the Maduro regime for bringing a "once thriving nation to the brink of total collapse". He praised the sanctions that had been imposed on the country, but he warned that the US is "prepared to take further action if the government of Venezuela persists on its path to impose authoritarian rule". His comments have alarmed many, particularly given his threat in August to take military action in the country. Venezuela's defence minister Vladimir Padrino has previously called Trump's talk of possible military action a "crazy act".

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch

Suzanne Lynch, a former Irish Times journalist, was Washington correspondent and, before that, Europe correspondent