Trump Has a Peculiar Definition of Sovereignty

The president claimed at the UN that defending a country’s sovereignty is the best way to defend its democracy. But his interpretation of sovereignty mostly aggrandizes himself.

President Donald Trump sits at the head of a table surrounded by leaders from other countries and their flags.
Saul Loeb / Getty

Donald Trump shows little interest in most points of political philosophy, but he’s revealed an obsession with at least one term. “If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty,” he said in a speech before the United Nations General Assembly this week. He fixated on the same term in his previous two speeches in that forum. Last year, in announcing that the United States would no longer recognize the legitimacy of the International Criminal Court, he declared, “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.” In his 2017 speech, he proposed that the UN’s success “depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty.”

Sovereignty might seem like a reasonable thing for a head of state to insist on. In those speeches, Trump was appealing to what political theorists call external sovereignty: when a state is free from interference from outside powers, which recognize its legitimate and exclusive rule over its own territories. In this sense, Trump is right. Unlawful interference of foreign powers in the affairs of a country can undermine its democracy—that is, the ability of its citizens to govern it for their own benefit.

But for all the lip service he pays to the idea, Trump is not defending the external sovereignty of the United States. He has dismissed evidence, produced by the security agencies he supervises, of Russian interference in the 2016 American election—a straightforward violation of U.S. sovereignty. More recently, according to a whistle-blower in the intelligence committee, he pushed Ukraine to intrude in the 2020 campaign on his behalf. On the very same day the president was at the UN defending the idea of sovereignty, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment investigation because, in the Ukraine case, Trump had done the exact opposite.

In his deeds, rather than in his words, Trump is concerned only with internal sovereignty, which has to do with the question of who has the final legitimate authority within a state. And he is advancing a particularly self-serving version of that idea—one in which he is the sovereign, free not so much from foreign interference, but from the internal institutions that exist to scrutinize and curb his executive power. This kind of sovereignty is an enemy of democracy, not its ally.

Trump has never been shy about his contempt for the fact that his presidential powers are constrained by Congress and the courts. He bypassed the former whenever he could with executive orders and denigrated judges who ruled against his policies as politically motivated, in an attempt to undermine their legitimacy. He has sought to discredit the journalists who report on his administration, and has routinely described investigations of his connections with Russia as a witch hunt. On Thursday, the Los Angeles Times reported, Trump described “the person who gave the whistle-blower the information” as “close to a spy.” He went on to imply that informants should be swiftly punished: “You know what we used to do in the old days when we were smart? Right? The spies and treason, we used to handle it a little differently than we do now.”

Trump isn’t the only world leader who cites the principle of external sovereignty while trying to sweep away internal constraints. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson regularly makes appeals to sovereignty; it was one of his main arguments for why his country should leave the European Union. But as Johnson’s unlawful attempt to suspend Parliament showed, what he really wanted was to be able to push Brexit forward unimpeded by parliamentary scrutiny.

The foreign strongmen whose ways Trump appears to admire—authoritarians such as Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin—rule their countries without pesky internal constraints. On the international stage, these regimes, too, insist upon the sanctity of their national sovereignty, which in their cases includes the power to have domestic opponents exiled, imprisoned, forcibly reeducated, or killed.

Past U.S. presidents have emphatically rejected this definition of sovereignty. In a 2013 speech to the UN, for example, Barack Obama argued that even though “the principle of sovereignty is at the center of our international order,” a state’s sovereignty “cannot be a shield for tyrants to commit wanton murder, or an excuse for the international community to turn a blind eye to slaughter.” This amounts to an implicit recognition that there are sovereign states around the world that are not democracies, and whose governments often abuse their power and use it against their own people. Even though the sovereignty of a state might be a necessary condition for a democracy to flourish, it is not a sufficient condition.

What determines whether a state is democratic mostly has to do with its internal sovereignty, not the external kind. In democracies such as the United States, the final authority belongs, in one way or another, to citizens via their elected representatives and political leaders. The details, however, are not straightforward—power and authority are in fact spread among different branches of government, and there are often clashes among them. Trump’s version of sovereignty, like Johnson’s, in practice means transferring more power to the executive at the expense of the other branches of government.

But the sovereignty of the executive, even a democratically elected one, is not by itself tantamount to democracy—it amounts to a version of absolute power, if only until the next election, resembling an authoritarian rather than a democratic form of government. Moreover, even such elected executives, once invested with unconstrained power, can and do take steps to circumvent the next scheduled vote—by intimidating the media, by using their official powers against rival candidates. On paper, Putin’s Russia is a democracy too, and Putin wins elections by large margins.

In a democracy, sovereignty has to be something more than giving free rein to politicians whose rule is occasionally ratified by a popular vote. In his 1861 inaugural address, Abraham Lincoln recognized that for the citizens of a country to be sovereign, the governing majority’s powers had to be limited: “A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people.” Congress’s initiation of impeachment procedures against Trump is a step in the direction of restoring the country’s true sovereign.