by Robert E. Hunter
President Donald J. Trump’s speech this week to the UN General Assembly may go down as a turning point in US engagement with the outside world. As such, it should not be dismissed just as an appeal to his domestic political base or a display of the showmanship that has kept his critics off balance. Heretofore, much of the world only knew about his views in terms of their own countries and issues or what they had gleaned from media that, in the United States, have been almost all hostile to the president all the time, to the point of losing credibility.
But at the podium in the General Assembly Hall, Trump let loose with a tirade at some of America’s enemies that has had no precedent for a US president and that dwarfed his positive statement about the role of the United Nations and some of the finer aspects of what America has done, is doing, and is prepared to continue doing in the world.
To this point, “America First” had been a slogan that conveyed two meanings. The first sense is that repairing the American economy, its infrastructure, creating jobs, and the like must be the primary task, including to buttress US strength that, among other things, could be put at the service of positive contributions abroad. These would include exporting security to some places and also exporting prosperity and other good things, like promoting peaceful resolution of disputes and the rule of law, from which others can benefit.
The second sense of America First is that, as president, Trump will look to American interests uppermost. Nor was he wrong to do so. It is part of his task as president and, as he said, this is also an admonition to others: “…you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always put your countries first.” So far, so good, in a rough world where, as the saying goes, foreign policy is not an eleemosynary business. Notably, this became the first “applause line” in Trump’s address—no doubt in part because it embraced leaders present from some of the world’s most repressive governments who were heartened that the U.S. president gave them a free pass.
But despite his riff on some themes about good things that the United States is prepared to do for others and for the world in general, including support for the United Nations, he in effect presented a philosophy of relations among states that places national sovereignty as the supreme principle. Such a philosophy was codified in the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, following what, to that point, had been Europe’s worst war in terms of non-combatant deaths.
Beginning in the 19th century, however, with the rise of warfare that began to embrace whole societies—marked especially by the American Civil War—that concept has been steadily whittled away. The first and second world wars were especially brutal lessons about the grisly price of giving primacy to national self-preoccupation and sovereignty of decision above all else. Indeed, the widely felt need to move beyond the Westphalia model was the basis for creating the League of Nations, a failure, and the United Nations, not a terminal failure but still very much a “work in progress.”
This movement has included the codification of a wide range of new behavior-expectations that require erosion of sovereignty as the be-all-and-end-all standard for judging state actions. It has extended beyond efforts to try regulating conduct in war among nation states to apply to the behavior of governments toward their own peoples. Notably, these efforts have been enshrined in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the 1975 Helsinki Final Act, and the UN’s adoption in 2005 of the Responsibility to Protect, which includes the principle, however much honored in the breach, that nations should be held accountable for the way they treat their own peoples.
Perhaps in practice the Trump administration will continue to champion human rights, as indicated in the president’s reiteration of the long-standing notion of America’s role to “shine as an example for everyone to watch” (a variant of St. Matthew’s, John Winthrop’s, and Ronald Reagan’s “city on a hill”). At the same time, Trump has been expanding upon the Obama administration’s slow retreat from the idea that the United States should somehow seek to advance its own values, including democracy, as having universal appeal if not application. However, like most US administrations (Jimmy Carter’s was the exception), he chastised on human rights grounds only those countries with which the US has foreign policy disagreements (North Korea, Iran, Venezuela) while ignoring the gross excesses of countries, notably Saudi Arabia, which the US supports. Ironically, in so doing, he violated his own stricture about honoring all other countries’ right to sovereignty. He also misstated the “pillars” of post-World War II engagement in Europe—“Those three [sic!] beautiful pillars—they’re pillars of peace, sovereignty, security, and prosperity”—by leaving out democracy, the underpinning of them all.
The bottom line is that national sovereignty, at least for this administration, will top all else, with the full implications of that statement still unclear, including US adherence to existing treaties, willingness to negotiate new multinational agreements, and continued steadfast participation in various post-World War II institutions.
“Sovereignty First” could be the most lasting message to come from President Trump’s appearance this week at the UN General Assembly. It’s also the message that should cause most long-term concern to America’s friends abroad, along with the people of the United States for whom a blend of interests and values has always been essential to foster popular acceptance of US engagement in the world.