On Tuesday, during this year’s UN General Assembly, Emmanuel Macron, the French president, made this case. But the American president didn’t. Instead, Donald Trump inverted the argument: Contemporary challenges, he told the world leaders assembled in New York, are best tackled by self-interested states that work together when and where their interests overlap. “If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together, there can be no substitute for strong, sovereign, and independent nations—nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies,” Trump said.
Macron, by contrast, emphasized interdependence rather than independence. The lesson from humanity’s collective history in recent decades is that, from Mali to Saint Martin, “we are inextricably linked to each other in a community of destiny” and “planetary responsibility,” the French president noted in a speech soon after Trump’s. “There is nothing more effective than multilateralism in our current world because all our challenges are multilateral: war, terrorism, climate change, the digital economy.”
Trump and Macron even diverged in their interpretation of the postwar period. World War II was won because “patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain,” Trump recounted, and the UN “was based on the vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security, and promote their prosperity.”
Macron, meanwhile, began his address by stating that he wouldn’t be standing before the UN as the leader of the French Republic had people from America and Africa, to Asia and Oceania, not resisted “the barbaric regime that had seized my country,” recognizing that “their freedom and their values depended upon the freedom of other women and of other men who lived thousands of kilometers away from them.” He and his country also owed a “debt” to those who later created the “international order”—including the UN, the rule of law, and mechanisms to facilitate exchanges between peoples—to restore the “values of tolerance, of freedom, of humanity” that the Second World War “had flouted” and that held the worst instincts of humankind “at bay.”
Trump vowed to put America’s interests first, and suggested other leaders do the same. In condemning the authoritarian leaders of Cuba and Venezuela, he proclaimed that “nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.” Macron rejected parochialism. Peace, freedom, and justice are not solely to “be enjoyed in our own corner,” he contended. “If we don’t stand up for those values, then all of us will be affected.”
Macron preferred to describe the world’s problems on an international scale. He expressed concern about the “dictatorial trends” on display in countries like Venezuela and the “jihadist terrorism” afflicting all continents, warned that North Korea threatened efforts to stop the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and praised the Paris climate-change agreement as a pact between states and generations. Trump acknowledged that international problems such as terrorism and drug-trafficking demand international solutions. But he nevertheless dwelled on the level of the nation-state, which he characterized as “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.” He called out the suffering that the socialist dictator of Venezuela had inflicted on his own people and gave notice that the “rocket man” in North Korea, in brandishing nuclear weapons at the United States and allied nations, was embarking on “a suicide mission.”