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Trump To Outline His Foreign Policy Vision To U.N. General Assembly


President Trump is taking his America First message to the world stage today. He is doing this in front of an organization he has criticized, the United Nations. In a speech this morning to the General Assembly, the president is expected to outline his foreign policy vision with a good bit of focus on North Korea and Iran, and I want to bring in Elliott Abrams. He is a veteran U.S. diplomat now at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was also Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's pick for a deputy but was passed up by President Trump. Elliott Abrams, welcome back to our program.

ELLIOTT ABRAMS: Very good to be with you.

GREENE: So President Trump is still relatively new to the world stage and to the world leaders he's going to be addressing. Just capture this moment for me. What's at stake here?

ABRAMS: What's at stake is not so much his view of the United Nations, which I think is a secondary question, but the picture he gives them of American foreign policy for at least the next three years. Will there be American leadership? What kind? On what issues? So he has some opportunities there. But there are also some dangers.

GREENE: Like what?

ABRAMS: Well, he may seem to be saying we're not going to lead. If the message that they get is, you know, we're tired of this burden; it's too expensive, then I think a number of American allies are going to think, you know, now is the time to start hedging. We're not hearing such a message of fatigue from the Russians or the Chinese or from Iran. So that is what I worry about - that his message, which is really going to be everyone must do his share, will be understood as a message of an American turn away from global leadership.

GREENE: So far what we've been hearing from the White House as they've been previewing the president's message is that it's not going to be fatigue. It's going to be explaining America First, the idea that this is not in opposition to the international community working together on tough problems, but it's a reality that sovereign nations need to put their countries first even as they deal with big problems. I mean is that a strategy that the audience will receive well?

ABRAMS: Well, the audience itself, which is to say in the chamber, the physical audience - you know, President George W. Bush likened to a wax museum, and it is really like a hall of mummies. I don't think he's ever spoken to an audience that's going to be this non-responsive.

GREENE: He's used to people, crowds cheering and cheering wildly. And I mean talking to his base of supporters.

ABRAMS: (Laughter) There may not be any - literally any applause or reaction at all, and I hope Ambassador Haley has prepared him for that. The main message that the U.N. is not supposed to be a world government; it is a - it is an association of sovereign countries is OK, and I think it's OK in my view 'cause it's true. That is a true statement about the U.N. But I hope he goes on to say that these sovereign countries have a lot of common problems that we need to address together. And he'll certainly mention Iran, and he'll mention North Korea.

GREENE: Yeah, and he's - I mean the White House is saying he's going to bring those up. And I just wonder. I mean if he singles-out Iran and North Korea, that has echoes to me of 15 years ago when your former boss President George W. Bush brought up the axis of evil. So I wonder how different is Donald Trump's foreign policy? What is new here from Trump in terms of confronting North Korea and Iran?

ABRAMS: Well, North Korea is different because it's an international pariah, and you don't have to worry about persuading people how terrible North Korea is. From a point of view of danger, point of view of human-rights abuses, that's an easy message for people to accept. And the call for countries to do more about it, which will really be aimed at China I think will have a lot of support in the chamber.

On Iran, he's more isolated. There's a lot of international support for the Iran deal that the president obviously doesn't like. But what is at stake here really is his message I think to the countries around the world that face Russia or China or Iran and that view themselves as American allies. Can they rely on American support? Will there be a vigorous American international policy, or does the America First policy translate into you're on your own? That is what I think they're listening for.

GREENE: Let me just finish with asking you on a personal level. I mean you had been in the running to be number two at the State Department. The president sounds like nixed the appointment after learning about some criticism of him from you in the past. Watching how things have unfolded, do you wish you were on the inside right now, or are you relieved you're not? How are you feeling?

ABRAMS: Well, I certainly don't wish I were in New York City right now dealing with hopeless traffic jams.

GREENE: (Laughter) OK.

ABRAMS: But you know, if you are, like me, very interested in international affairs, there's always going to be regret that you're not on the inside in influence, in a position, for example, to look at the first draft of today's speech and start editing. It's inevitable.

GREENE: All right. Elliott Abrams, former U.S. diplomat. He is now at the Council on Foreign Relations previewing the president's speech at the United Nations General Assembly with us this morning. Thanks so much.

ABRAMS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.