UNITED NATIONS—President Donald J. Trump brought the same confrontational style of leadership he has used at home to the world’s most prominent stage on Tuesday, as he vowed to “totally destroy North Korea” if it threatened the United States and denounced the nuclear agreement with Iran as “an embarrassment” that he may abandon.
In his first address to the United Nations General Assembly, Trump framed the conflicts as a test of the international system. The bombastic flourishes that generate approving roars at political events were met by stony silence, interrupted a few times by a smattering of applause, as Trump promised to “crush loser terrorists,” mocked North Korea’s leader as “Rocket Man” and declared that parts of the world “are going to hell.”
The president’s tone carried real-world implications for the future of the UN and the escalating confrontations with international outliers. In the space of 42 minutes, he upended decades of rhetorical support by the US for the collective philosophy of the United Nations as he defended his “America First” policy.
He repeatedly extolled “sovereignty” in a setting where the term traditionally has been brandished by nations like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea to deflect criticism.
“As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said, generating light applause in parts of the chamber. But he argued that nationalism can be the foundation for strong nations to join common causes.
“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he said. “When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.”
Trump singled out North Korea, broadening his indictment of the Pyongyang government beyond its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its treatment of its own people and captured foreigners like the American college student who died shortly after being sent back to the US.
“No nation on Earth has an interest in seeing this band of criminals arm itself with nuclear weapons and missiles,” Trump said. “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.”
Without mentioning it by name, Trump also chastised China for continuing to deal with its rogue neighbor, calling it “an outrage that some nations” would trade, arm and support North Korea.
He assailed the Iran agreement, which was negotiated by President Barack Obama and leaders of five other powers and ratified by the UN Security Council to curb Tehran’s nuclear program for a decade in exchange for lifting international sanctions.
Under US law, Trump has until October 15 to certify whether Iran is complying with the agreement, which he has done twice so far since taking office. But he has made clear that he would prefer not to do so again, which could unravel the accord.
“The Iran deal was one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into,” Trump 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.”
The tough words cheered the delegation from Israel, whose prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, applauded from the gallery and called it the boldest speech he had heard at the UN in 30 years. In his own address later, he said Trump had “rightly called the nuclear deal with Iran an embarrassment” and pointed to North Korea as an example.
“In the last few months, we’ve all seen how dangerous even a few nuclear weapons can be in the hands of a small rogue regime,” Netanyahu said. “Now imagine the danger of hundreds of nuclear weapons in the reins of a vast Iranian empire, with the missiles to deliver them anywhere on Earth.”
In an editorial on Wednesday, the state-run China Daily gave no special emphasis to Trump’s tough passage on North Korea, but it scolded the US for not doing more to start talks. Trump had called President Xi Jinping of China the night before and previewed what he planned to say, a person briefed on the call said.
Others called Trump’s speech excessively belligerent. “If Trump was determined to demonstrate to the world that he is unhinged and an imminent danger to world peace, he has succeeded with this speech, and will only make it harder for him to win over the world to his self-destructive goals,” said Trita Parsi, president of the National Iranian American Council, a Washington-based group that criticizes the Tehran government but advocates more engagement.
Neither Hassan Rouhani, Iran’s president, nor Mohammad Javad Zarif, its foreign minister, was in the hall for Trump’s speech. North Korea’s ambassador left his seat before the president started speaking.
In an interview taped before the speech, Rouhani castigated Trump for considering a withdrawal from the nuclear accord. “The exiting of the United States from such an agreement would carry a high cost, meaning that subsequent to such an action by the United States of America, no one will trust America again,” he told NBC News.
Zarif said on Twitter that “Trump’s ignorant hate speech belongs in medieval times—not the 21st Century UN.”