What Trump Got Wrong (and Right) at the UN
(The Bloomberg View) -- Before U.S. President Donald Trump arrived in New York to deliver this year’s address to the United Nations General Assembly, his top national-security officials promised that he would affirm the importance of sovereignty in U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. As National Security Adviser John Bolton put it, Trump planned to “talk a lot about American sovereignty.”
He did, and that was precisely the problem. The president fails to recognize that sovereignty isn’t a one-way street — and that institutions like the UN, far from threatening sovereignty, in fact establish the conditions in which it can flourish.
In principle, there’s much to be said for Trump’s idea that “When nations respect the rights of their neighbors, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity and peace.” The UN itself was founded on this principle: As its charter states, nothing shall “authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state.”
Trump’s pledge to “honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions” likewise has plenty of precedent. As President Richard Nixon told the UN in 1969, “Our aim is to encourage the creative forms of nationalism; to join as partners where our partnership is appropriate, and where it is wanted, but not to let a U.S. presence substitute for independent national effort or infringe on national dignity and national pride.”
The problem is that Trump’s respect for sovereignty seems to stop at the water’s edge. He has warned South Africa about its land-reform policies, lectured U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May about Brexit, pushed for invading Venezuela, and reportedly mused about assassinating Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. He has also imposed sanctions on some 1,000 individuals and entities. Whatever one thinks of these actions and intentions, it’s hard not to see them as intrusions on someone else’s sovereignty.
This conceptual confusion extends to Trump’s view of multilateral institutions. In Nixon’s UN speech, he was clear that even hard-headed realists like himself should recognize the value of the UN as a forum for pursuing common interests, from economic development to “protecting our threatened environment.”
Trump, by contrast, seems to view such institutions as antagonists. He bashes NATO and the World Trade Organization. He has torn up international commitments such as the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate-change accord. He explained his decision to withdraw from the Global Compact for Migration by saying that “migration should not be governed by an international body unaccountable to our own citizens.” (Never mind that the compact is actually a grab bag of good intentions that poses no threat to anyone’s sovereignty.)
Such views blind Trump to an important truth about the global order. Yes, it requires all participants to cede a measure of sovereignty. But countries still sign up because the benefits are so vast. For decades, this order has spread prosperity, resolved disputes, encouraged peace, facilitated fair trade, and extended liberal norms and values around the world. Not incidentally, it has also provided a solid legal basis on which to intervene in another country’s affairs, as Trump so often seems to want.
The price of this order, though, is that countries must agree to follow the rules, and thereby sacrifice some of their independence. Doing so is by no means a sign of weakness. In fact, it makes American sovereignty all the more valuable.
James Gibney writes editorials on international affairs for Bloomberg Opinion. Previously an editor at the Atlantic, the New York Times, Smithsonian, Foreign Policy and the New Republic, he was also in the U.S. Foreign Service from 1989 to 1997 in India, Japan and Washington.
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