President Donald Trump on Tuesday will take his vision to the United Nations for an America that leads on the global stage only when its sovereignty is threatened, a message that in the past has drawn howls from his own political party.
American allies reportedly are still struggling to fully understand Trump’s “America first” governing philosophy — and what it means for how it will shape foreign policy. Some of his top aides often say “America first” does not mean America alone, and the president will have an opportunity to reassure Washington’s longtime friends when he addresses the United Nations General Assembly for the first time.
White House aides say Trump knows his UN address is a major moment for his presidency. That’s why he has spent “a lot of time crafting [and] fine tuning” his remarks, a senior administration official said Monday.
The senior official said the address will be based on “principled realism,” which is the term White House aides often use to describe Trump’s foreign policy philosophy. In large part, it is rooted in a belief that countries must be “more sovereign,” as the senior official said Monday.
That is foreign policy-speak for countries focusing on inward issues and prosperity first, placing issues like infrastructure and secure borders over helping faraway countries cleanse their drinking water, fight diseases or quash civil uprisings. If that sounds familiar, it was a key message of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
To Trump and his top advisers, global stability is dependent upon countries becoming “more prosperous and more sovereign,” the senior administration official said.
The president will press other world leaders for “greater burden-sharing” on addressing the world’s threats and quandaries — based on a view that America’s leaders for decades have opted to do too much and require too little of allies.
Trump will let other UN leaders know that during his tenure, the U.S. will not try to “impose an ideological frame” on other nations, the senior official said, adding Trump will make clear the United States is out of the nation-building business.
Still, the president will say America still plans to work with its partners — but only if it can “find the basis for cooperation,” the senior official noted. Translation: Any such partnerships must be geared toward a clear threat to American sovereignty — not a scourge elsewhere.
An example is North Korea. Trump views its nuclear weapons and long-range missiles as a threat to American sovereignty. So much so that he recently said war with the North “certainly … could happen.”
“There is no question the North Korea menace is one of the biggest issues that the world community faces,” the senior official said, adding it will be a major part of the address. The North Korea portion will also focus on “the enablement of the North Korean regime,” the official said, signaling Trump plans to weave the situation with the North with his call for other countries to step it up.
Those are reasons why the UN address, as the senior official said of how the president and his senior staff view it, “really is the embodiment” of what “America first means” for other countries.
This foreign policy approach appealed to millions of voters who had grown weary of American post-9/11 interventionism abroad. But it has, at times, frustrated Trump’s fellow Republicans.
One example is the president’s attempt to forge a close working relationship with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi.
Trump welcomed the Egyptian leader to the White House on May 21, ignoring concerns from Democratic lawmakers and human rights groups — and even some GOP members — about Sisi’s tough-handed tactics at home.
To that end, a White House statement about that Oval Office meeting did not mention Trump pressing his counterpart on alleged human rights issues in Egypt. Instead, it said the U.S. president “reaffirmed America’s deep and abiding commitment to Egypt’s security, stability, and prosperity” and “applauded President al-Sisi’s strong calls to reform ideologies that inspire violence.”
To Trump, the most important issue for U.S.-Egyptian relations is fighting violent extremists that could hit American targets here or overseas. Through an “America first” lens, a perceived need for al-Sisi’s help eclipses problems he may be encountering — or causing — inside his own borders.
Last month, Senate Armed Services Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., applauded the Trump administration for denying Egypt a military aid package over human rights concerns. But he also called for the president to do much more about what alleged is going on on Egyptian soil.
“President Trump must also demand the immediate release of the nearly 20 American citizens wrongly imprisoned in Egypt, including Ahmed Etwiy and Mustafa Kassem, who have been detained on false allegations,” McCain said in a statement.
“As the United States continues to work with Egypt to fight terrorism,” McCain said, “President Trump must make every effort to convince the Egyptian government to uphold its international commitments on human rights and respect the democratic aspirations of its people.”
But GOP skepticism of Trump’s apparent global withdrawal are broader than U.S. relations with one country.
The Republican-controlled Senate Appropriations Committee recently sent a report critical of Trump’s foreign policy vision to the chamber’s floor.
“The lessons-learned since September 11, 2001, include the reality that defense alone does not provide for American strength and resolve abroad,” the report states. “Battlefield technology and firepower cannot replace diplomacy and development.”
“The administration’s apparent doctrine of retreat, which also includes distancing the United States from collective and multilateral dispute resolution frameworks, serves only to weaken America’s standing in the world,” the committee said.
Tellingly, not a single GOP senator voted against the sometimes-scathing report at the committee level.
Niels Lesniewski contributed to this report.