To listen to the commentary, Donald Trump used an inappropriate term at the U.N. — not just “Rocket Man,” but “sovereignty.”
It wasn’t surprising that liberal analysts freaked out over his nickname for Kim Jong Un and his warning that we’d “totally destroy” Kim’s country should it become necessary. These lines were calculated to get a reaction, and they did. More interesting was the allergy to Trump’s defense of sovereign nations.
Brian Williams of MSNBC wondered whether the repeated use of the word “sovereignty” was a “dog whistle.” CNN’s Jim Sciutto called it “a loaded term” and “a favorite expression of authoritarian leaders.”
It was a widely repeated trope that Trump’s speech was “a giant gift,” in the words of BuzzFeed, to China and Russia.
In an otherwise illuminating piece in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart concluded that Trump’s address amounted to “imperialism.” If so, couched in the rhetoric of the mutual respect of nations, it’s the best-disguised imperialist manifesto in history.
Trump’s critics misrepresent the speech and misunderstand the nationalist vision that Trump was setting out.
He didn’t defend a valueless international relativism. Trump warned that “authoritarian powers seek to collapse the values, the systems, and alliances that prevented conflict and tilted the world toward freedom since World War II.”
He praised the U.S. Constitution as “the foundation of peace, prosperity and freedom for the Americans and for countless millions around the globe.”
“The Marshall Plan,” he said, “was built on the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent and free.”
Just window dressing? Trump returned to similar language in his denunciation of the world’s rogue states.
When critics don’t ignore these passages, they say that they contradict Trump’s emphasis on the sovereignty of all nations. There’s no doubt that there’s a tension in Trump’s emerging marriage between traditional Republican thinking and his instinctive nationalism. Yet he outlined a few key expectations.
He said, repeatedly, that we want nations committed to promoting “security, prosperity and peace.” And we look for them “to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
Every country that Trump criticized fails one or both of these tests. So, by the way, do Russia and China. Hence Trump’s oblique criticism of their aggression in Ukraine and the South China Sea.
Trump’s standards aren’t drawn out of thin air. A consistent nationalist believes in the right of every nation to govern itself. Moreover, modern nationalism developed alongside the idea of popular sovereignty — i.e., the people have the right to rule, and the state is their agent, not the other way around.
Trump’s core claim that “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition” is indubitably correct; it is what makes self-government possible. If the alternative is being governed by an imperial center or transnational authorities, the people of almost every nation will want — and fight, if necessary — to govern themselves. (See the American Revolution.)
The U.N. is hardly an inappropriate forum for advancing these ideas. “The Organization,” the U.N. charter itself says, “is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members.” To the extent that the U.N. is now a gathering place for people hoping the nation-state will be eclipsed, it’s useful to remind them that it’s not going away.
All that said, there were indeed weaknesses in the speech. First, as usual, Trump’s bellicose lines stepped on the finer points of his message. Second, even if sovereignty is important, it can’t alone bear the weight of being the organizing principle of American foreign policy. Finally, Trump’s foreign-policy vision is clearly a work in progress, as he accommodates himself to the American international role he so long considered a rip-off and waste of time.
Trump is adjusting to being the head of a sovereign nation — that happens to be the leader of the world.