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File Donald J. Trump’s address to the UN General Assembly today under the category of “narcissistic nationalism.” The central themes of his thirty-five-minute address were the forthright defense of American sovereignty against the imagined depredations of multilateral bodies and an insistence that nobody will ever take advantage of the United States again. The president was speaking to the United Nations, but his emphasis was less on uniting the world behind common purposes than demanding respect for the independence and uniqueness of each assembled nation—not least his own. Entirely absent was any discussion of U.S. global leadership or the common purposes of the world body.
The speech began awkwardly for the president. He opened by reciting a laundry list of domestic achievements as if he were delivering a state of the union address to Congress rather than world leaders. When he bragged that he had accomplished more in under two years than any previous U.S. president, the hall dissolved into laughter.
Pivoting to foreign policy, Trump explained the assumptions behind his “America First” policy. After too many years during which others had exploited and taken advantage of the United States, “We are standing up for America and the American people.” At the core of this new orientation is a rejection of global treaties and bodies that Trump believes seek to subordinate U.S. popular sovereignty (such as the International Criminal Court) or that have gone off the rails (like the UN Human Rights Council). “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination,” the President declared. “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.” Nor, Trump added, would the United States presume to tell other countries—each with their “own customs, beliefs, and traditions”—how to conduct their affairs. “We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.”
Permeating the president’s speech was what might be called a sucker’s narrative. Foreigners, Trump repeatedly complained, had exploited U.S. generosity and naiveté. America’s allies had freeloaded on its security guarantees, its aid recipients had failed to support U.S. policies, and its trade partners—led by China—had devastated the U.S. economy by violating international trade rules. Those days were over. The United States would now demand that allies “pay their fair share” for U.S. protection, that countries benefitting from U.S. assistance adopt “friendly policies,” and that trade “be fair and reciprocal,” rather than one-sided.
Trump’s promise that America would finally stand up for itself should play well with his domestic supporters—his intended audience, of course. But his description of current global realities is off base, and his browbeating style is counterproductive, promising to accelerate U.S. diplomatic isolation. To begin with, Trump’s defensive approach to national sovereignty is based on a straw man: the ridiculous notion that the United States invariably sacrifices its independence when it embraces multilateral treaties and organizations. In fact, the U.S. decision to cooperate within the UN and to abide by treaties, provided it is done voluntarily and through constitutional means, is an expression and indeed an embodiment of sovereignty—not its abdication.
Nor are multilateral agreements and organizations as constraining as Trump contends. Consider the UN-led draft Global Compact on Migration, which the Trump administration rejected on sovereignty grounds. It is a benign, aspirational document whose signatories merely pledge to treat migrants humanely. Perhaps that requirement for basic decency, rather than any constitutional concern, is why the Trump administration rejected it.
Trump’s narrow-minded, transactional approach to diplomacy is also ill-founded and counterproductive. The U.S. global alliance system, which has been the handmaiden of globalization, has rewarded the United States handsomely, underpinning its global influence, ensuring international stability, and guaranteeing that America can handle any adversary. Debates over burden sharing are longstanding. But Trump’s decision to treat NATO and alliances in Asia as a mafioso protection racket undermines allied solidarity and is already leading allies to hedge their bets, as the United States becomes more erratic. Similarly, the administration’s miserly position on U.S. foreign assistance ignores both its modest size and the fact that is intended not just for strategic allies (like Israel or Egypt) but directed at reducing poverty, sickness, and suffering around the world, so that others may begin to prosper and join the global economy—long-term ends that both resonate with U.S. values and advance U.S. interests. Finally, Trump’s trade complaints, particularly about China, have some merit. But his scattershot protectionism—which has hit Europeans and other partners, not just China—has undercut the merits of his case.
The risk in Trump’s America First mania is that it will translate into America Alone. This is nowhere more obvious than in Trump’s ramped-up denunciations of Iran and his efforts to destroy the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) on Iran’s nuclear program. The president berated the Islamic Republic today, denouncing it as a menace to regional and global stability and the world’s major exporter of transnational terrorism. He promised to tighten sanctions to bring Iran to heel.
Unfortunately, Trump does not have much company. In a startling move, the other parties to the JCPOA (erstwhile U.S. allies France, Germany, and the United Kingdom, as well as China and Russia) met without the United States on Monday evening. Beyond recommitting themselves to the agreement, they boldly declared that they would establish a parallel financial system, outside of U.S. banking influence, to ensure that Iran can continue to sell its oil and do business with their nations’ companies. President Trump hopes to hold Iran’s feet to the fire tomorrow when he hosts a special UN Security Council session on weapons of mass destruction. But he could well find himself isolated by friend and foe alike.
The most atavistic aspect of Trump’s UNGA speech was his reflection that each country assembled in New York has its own “distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on earth.” Accordingly, he suggested, each nation is entitled to be left alone, to pursue their own respective destinies. Initially, this sounded like an ode to tolerant pluralism. But the more one listened, and the president spoke of building “walls” to “secure national borders,” the more it came across as a blood-and-soil nationalism—of the sort advocated by Stephen Miller, White House advisor and speechwriter. The president’s repeated warnings about “illegal immigration,” and the “vicious cycle of crime, violence, and poverty” that it brings, reinforced the sense that for Trump, America First means Fortress America.
Trump may have been speaking at the “United Nations,” but the emphasis was clearly on the second word—nations—rather than the ties that bind those independent countries. Toward the end of his address, the president tried to give a label for his foreign policy, describing it as “principled realism.” Given that his worldview lacks any clear principles and is at odds with reality, it’s hard to see how this moniker will stick.