A subtle diplomat like Talleyrand, Donald Trump is not.
The US president, in his first foray at the UN General Assembly, derided North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as a “rocket man … on a suicide mission” and delivered an unabashed defense of sovereignty at the seat of global multilateralism.
But if his speech drew barbs from allies and authoritarian adversaries, it did nothing to deter his dance partners at the premier diplomatic waltz of the year, the 193-member United Nations’ annual gathering of world leaders known by the acronym UNGA.
Trump held bilateral meetings with 13 leaders this week, more than his predecessor Barack Obama had at his first UNGA (five), his last (six) or his busiest (10), according to data compiled by CBS News White House correspondent Mark Knoller.
Trump’s less than diplomatic speech on Tuesday recalled the fiery nationalist language of his Jan. 20 inaugural address and raised eyebrows across the political spectrum by its bald assertion of the primacy of US interests.
“Our government’s first duty is to its people, to our citizens – to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values,” he said, evoking his campaign’s nationalist themes despite the departure of advocates such as Steve Bannon from the White House.
Germany’s foreign minister, Sigmar Gabriel, delivered a riposte in a scathing and barely veiled critique on Thursday.
“National egoism, I believe, is worthless as a regulatory principle for our world,” Gabriel said. “The motto ‘our country first’ not only leads to more national confrontations and less prosperity, in the end there can only be losers.”
Robert Mugabe, Zimbabwe’s authoritarian 93-year-old leader who has ruled the former British colony since independence in 1980, also sought to nudge Trump in a more peaceable direction.
“Mr. Trump, please blow your trumpet, blow your trumpet in a musical way towards the values of unity, peace, cooperation, togetherness, dialogue,” he said.
In his speech, Trump said if the United States were forced to defend itself or its allies, it would have “no choice but to totally destroy North Korea” and he called Iran’s government a “murderous regime” that exports “violence, bloodshed and chaos.”
His directness contrasts with the subtlety of 18th- and 19th-century French diplomat Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, who is reputed to have said: “A diplomat who says ‘yes’ means ‘maybe,’ a diplomat who says ‘maybe’ means ‘no,’ and a diplomat who says ‘no’ is no diplomat.”
Still, Trump’s language has seeped into the discourse of other leaders, perhaps seeking to curry his favor.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas spoke of “draining the swamp” of Israeli occupation while South Korean President Moon Jae-in called North Korean behavior “extremely deplorable.”
Trump, possibly recalling the criticism that his Democratic US presidential opponent Hillary Clinton earned for calling some of his supporters a “basket of deplorables,” was pleased.
“I’m very happy that you used the word ‘deplorable’,” Trump told Moon. “That’s been a very lucky word for me and many millions of people.”
Both Moon and Abbas had sitdowns with Trump, and there was no shortage of others who wanted to meet him.
A US official said the White House accommodated as many requests for meetings as they could schedule, noting some leaders who wanted to meet Trump did not make the cut. The US president has also wanted to see the leaders of China, India and Germany, but they did not come this year.
Afghan President Ashraf Ghani met Trump on Thursday, and officials in Kabul said all the impetus had come from the Afghan side, with no burning interest from the White House.
French President Emmanuel Macron made clear he would work with any US president, whoever he was, and said he and Trump had clear disagreements on climate change and Iran policy.
“I want a deep, cordial dialogue to bring him back into the international and multilateral fold on these two subjects,” Macron told reporters. “As I’m a pragmatist, I put myself in a position to work the best way possible with him.”
Asked if dealing with Trump was like managing a difficult child, the French president replied: “Not at all. I’m managing a partner of the world’s biggest power and a historical partner for our country.”