NEW YORK—The giggles that greeted Donald Trump’s boasts at the United Nations about his accomplishments were widely interpreted in the United States as mockery on the part of world leaders who knew better. But from my perch in the hall that day, this wasn’t so clear. The laughter also seemed to spring from familiarity. One way to translate the snickering that grew as Trump claimed he’d gotten more done than any president in history, and as he punctuated the hyperbole with a signature “so true,” was as a collective, knowing nod from the assembled dignitaries. There he goes again, they appeared to be saying. Classic Donald.
If 2017 was the year Trump stormed the United Nations, extolling national sovereignty and threatening to “totally destroy” a UN member state before the bewildered international body, 2018 was the year the United Nations adapted to the changing climate that Trump’s deeply disruptive conduct of foreign affairs has produced. The American president at this year’s annual General Assembly wasn’t a revelation. He wasn’t a laughingstock. He was, instead, a force to be reckoned with one way or another.
Some world leaders backed down and agreed to play by Trump’s rules. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, fresh off of celebrating the virtues of multinational free-trade agreements during a speech to the General Assembly, agreed on the sidelines of the UN gathering to a major concession: entering into negotiations on a bilateral trade agreement with the United States in order to prevent Trump from slapping tariffs on Japanese auto exports and to potentially lift the steel and aluminum duties Trump has already imposed on his nation. At a press conference after the announcement, Trump crowed that Japan was increasing its purchases of American military equipment and liquefied natural gas to rectify the trade deficit between the two countries. A Japanese trade official was less exultant. Noting that Abe had repeatedly tried without success to persuade the U.S. president to rejoin the transpacific trade pact that Trump withdrew from immediately after taking office, he described bilateral trade talks as “a better arrangement than nothing.”