President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly on Sept. 19, 2017, attracted much attention, both because of what he chose to talk about and because of what he chose not to talk about. But was it such a dramatic departure from previous rhetoric as some claim? Analyzing the composition of speeches before the General Assembly can provide a degree of insight.
This speech prompted both positive and negative reactions both domestically and internationally, with some praising his “boldness” and “strength,” and others criticizing his “aggressive” nationalist rhetoric. These claims of whether Trump’s speech was more aggressive, nationalist, and/or fearful than that of his predecessors are measurable, and a systematic look at his speech does give them some credibility.
A significant amount of attention has also been spent on Trump’s bellicosity toward North Korea and Iran, prompting reaction from those and many other countries — both positive and negative. These reactions have largely focused on trying to link the content of his speech to the interests that drive his foreign policy: what Bueno de Mesquita & Lalman (1992) would refer to as the set of goals and ideals that underpin the administration’s foreign policy. For example, The Guardian’s analysis comparing Trump’s rhetoric to Bush’s rhetoric is rooted in the question of whether the two leaders are ultimately pursuing similar foreign policy interests. Ultimately, understanding the nature of this aggressive stance toward hostile nations is a useful exercise for interpreting the way the Trump administration is communicating its foreign policy interests.
Speech in context
A Dynamic Topic Model — one of many tools political scientists and others have used to learn from text — allows us to learn about how US presidents have emphasized different topics over time in their statements to the UN General Assembly. Using data from Baturo & Mikhaylov (2017), Figure 1 shows the composition of these UNGA speeches since 2008. The tan, purple,and blue lines are of particular interest; these lines trend upward in 2017, meaning that Trump’s emphasis on "strength," "terrorism," and issues regarding the Middle East broadly (including Iran) has increased relative to the emphasis on the other topics.
Figure 2 zooms into these individual topics, charting individual presidents’ emphasis on them since 1990, providing further context. Note in particular Topic 2, concern and strength: this provides systematic evidence for the claim that Donald Trump’s speech was in fact one of the most militaristic, “fearful” speeches in the post-Cold War era. Further, the plot from Topic 5, "Terrorism and violence," provides some evidence that Trump’s speech may be a return to the Bush administration’s rhetoric on foreign affairs. It remains to be seen in the upcoming years whether this spike will prove to be a systematic change or an artifact of Trump’s first speech at the UN General Assembly. Finally, the spike on the "Middle East" topic almost certainly comes from devoting extensive emphasis to Iran broadly, the Iran Nuclear deal, and nuclear proliferation in Iran broadly.
The strategy of speech
The decision to communicate some priorities over others can have a variety of effects. For example, Fortune Magazine suggested that President Trump’s decision to focus on Iran and North Korea, and to not focus on China and Russia, was done with the knowledge that “the U.S. will need their support if the standoff with North Korea continues to escalate.” This reflects the broader idea that in order to bring other countries to the table (for example, to cooperate over or discuss the issue of North Korea), pre-discussion signals (such as a speech at the UN) can potentially impact the decision to actually discuss the issue at all (For work in Political Science on this, see Ramsay 2011 and Bill and Spaniel 2017).
The threatening rhetoric toward North Korea in particular can be understood in terms of what information — if any — it conveys. Especially noteworthy is the pushback Trump hasreceived both from high-profile democrats at home, as well as potential allies such as Sweden abroad. The partisan reaction between Democrats and Republicans to Trump’s speech communicates a still-divided resolve to actually go to war with North Korea, though the decision to actually make the threat nonetheless conveys some information in itself. Figure 3 replicates a crisis bargaining game from Kenneth Schultz’ (1998) seminal article in the American Political Science Review between the President, their domestic oppisiton and a target state (“S2”) — in this case, North Korea. The figure gives a schematic of the decision-making process a US president — such as the Trump Administration — might face when deciding whether to issue a challenge/threat to a rival state. The decision of Trump to challenge even in the face of his opposition party opposing that challenge suggests that he gained some benefit (such as political accolades for displaying “strength”) in issuing a threat, and this benefit outweighed the potential cost of failing to follow through with his threat later. Drawing from Michael Colaresi’s (2005) work on the domestic politics of international rivalries, it may also suggest a sense of confidence from the administration of eventually gaining concessions from North Korea in the future, leading the Trump administration to see a benefit to escalating the level of hostility.
Finally, this rhetoric can be viewed in terms of its potential effect in generating domestic support for an eventual foreign policy. Canes-Wrone (2006) shows that speeches on foreign affairs tend to, on average, increase support for an eventual foreign policy at home. This framework might suggest that in addition to communicating with potential adversaries and potential international partners, the Trump administration is attempting to mobilize support from potential domestic partners.
Only time will tell whether Trump will actually be successful in this attempt: as Baum & Groeling (2010) point out, such appeals must be filtered through a media which often tends to focus on opposition to a President’s appeals. Given the polarized media environment as well as its propensity to focus on partisan conflict, it remains to be seen whether Trump’s forceful rhetoric will successfully mobilize support for further action against North Korea.
Zuhaib Mahmood is a political science doctoral candidate, and a research assistant at the Institute for Public Policy and Social Research. His research interests are in international conflict and cooperation and his dissertation will examine how leaders communicate their foreign policy interests through their speeches at the United Nations.