President Trump Goes to New York

September 21, 2017 By John Glenn

While the coverage of President Trump’s first speech at the United Nations General Assembly has focused on his defense of his “America First” message, stress on “sovereignty,” and threat to totally destroy North Korea, close listeners may have also heard him mention America’s efforts to fight HIV/AIDS, stop preventable disease like malaria, and advance the rights of women and girls around the world for the first time in office.

The Big Speech

Veterans of political administrations observe that what gets included in prominent presidential speeches always reveals a choice among competing policy priorities. Notwithstanding his budget proposing steep and disproportionate cuts to the State Department and USAID, President Trump has rarely spoken about foreign assistance and it was noteworthy to hear him say “America is a compassionate nation” and praise America’s investments in “better health and opportunity all over the world.”

The president named a number of foreign assistance programs that reflect results-oriented reforms over the past fifteen years including “PEPFAR, which funds AIDS relief; the President’s Malaria Initiative; the Global Health Security Agenda; the Global Fund to End Modern Slavery.” He also called attention to the World Bank’s new Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative launched by Ivanka Trump, saying it was “part of our commitment to empowering women all across the globe.”

Recognizing the 30 million people on the brink of famine around the world, President Trump observed that the United States “continues to lead the world in humanitarian assistance, including famine prevention and relief in South Sudan, Somalia, and northern Nigeria and Yemen.”

“The Goodness of our Hearts”

For a vision the president described as “principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values,” it may have been surprising to hear him say the United States provides financial assistance to countries hosting refugees like Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey “out of the goodness of our hearts.”

The refugee crisis in the Middle East highlights, as military leaders have often said, that foreign assistance is not charity but a critical tool of national security to keep America safe by promoting long-term stability and addressing the conditions that drive extremism and conflict.

And it may have been a missed opportunity that the President focused on the military side of his Afghanistan strategy in front of many nations that have contributed to the war without acknowledging – as he did when first announcing it – that force alone will not create peace without integrating longer term investments in diplomacy and development.

What’s Next?

While the President’s speech did not announce any new initiatives, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson reaffirmed America’s commitment in the fight against HIV/AIDS, announcing acceleration in the implementation of the next phase of PEPFAR. U.S. Global AIDS coordinator, Ambassador Deborah Birx described the goals of this next phase, saying “This program started as a humanitarian outreach effort to demonstrate the compassion of the American people…Now it’s translated into a program controlling the epidemic.”

The President also met with African leaders and announced that Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley would be travelling to Africa to discuss opportunities for cooperation on the global health security agenda and on resolving conflicts in South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

President Trump is certainly right when he said in his speech, “We have it in our power, should we so choose, to lift millions from poverty, to help our citizens realize their dreams, and to ensure that new generations of children are raised free from violence, hatred, and fear.”

But questions still remain as to whether and how his administration will choose to rise to this challenge. Sharp eyes will also be on the President’s next budget – currently in process – to see whether it reflects a desire to do so, or to turn away from these goals.

photo credit: John Gillespie