A Radical Rebuke of Barack Obama's Foreign Policy Legacy

Donald Trump used his first address at the United Nations to redefine the idea of sovereignty.

President Donald Trump steps up to deliver his address to the United Nations General Assembly.
President Donald Trump steps up to deliver his address to the United Nations General Assembly.  (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations can best be understood as a response to his predecessor’s final one. On September 20, 2016, Barack Obama told the UN General Assembly that “at this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”

Three hundred and sixty-four days later, Trump delivered America’s answer: Option number two. His speech on Tuesday turned Obama’s on its head. Obama focused on overcoming the various challenges—poverty, economic dislocation, bigotry, extremism—that impede global “integration,” a term he used nine times. Trump didn’t use the term once. Obama used the word “international” 14 times, always positively (“international norms,” “international cooperation,” “international rules,” “international community”). Trump used it three times, in each case negatively (“unaccountable international tribunals,” “international criminal networks,” “the assassination of the dictator's brother using banned nerve agents in an international airport”) Obama warned of a world “sharply divided… along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.” Trump replied by praising “sovereignty” or invoking “sovereign” no fewer than 19 times. And while he didn’t explicitly defend divisions of “tribe and race and religion,” he talked about the importance of nations “preserving the cultures,” which is a more polite way of saying the same thing.

Each president’s speech drew on a different part of the United Nations tradition. Trump stands closer to Franklin Roosevelt, who believed that Woodrow Wilson, in designing a League of Nations that contained no great-power veto, had gone too far toward diluting America’s sovereignty. As Robert Divine details in his book, Second Chance, FDR “envisioned the United Nations becoming an organic society of free states, focused around common interest rather than binding commitment or another overly-ambitious attempt at global governance.” Obama stands closer to Eleanor Roosevelt, who chaired the drafting committee that in 1948 produced the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In declaring that “all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights,” that document implied that there are things governments should not be allowed to do even within their own borders. At the United Nations, the freedom of individuals and the freedom of governments have been in tension ever since.

Trump is not alone in suggesting that the United States has tilted too far toward the former. During the Cold War, realists like Walter Lippmann and Hans Morgenthau accused the United States of hypocrisy. America jealously guarded its own sovereignty, they noted, yet in the name of capitalism and freedom demanded that its adversaries forfeit their own. Such meddling, they insisted, would lead to war. More recently, Ron Paul and Andrew Bacevich have said similar things.

At times during his campaign, Trump echoed these themes. He not only demanded that America supercharge its own sovereignty—by building a wall along its southern border, abandoning international climate change accords, and preventing companies from going overseas—he suggested that America would be more respectful of the sovereignty of other nations, too. “We will stop looking to topple regimes and overthrow governments,” he told a Cincinnati crowd in December 2016. “Our goal is stability, not chaos.”

Had Trump’s enthusiasm for sovereignty led the United States toward the kind of reciprocal non-intrusion that realists like Lippmann and Bacevich have advocated, it would have represented a fascinating, and in some ways welcome, turn away from the interventionism that has cost the United States so dearly in Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. But Trump’s foreign policy has been nothing of the sort. Rather, it has been a hybrid between Breitbart and Bill Kristol. On issues of American sovereignty—immigration, climate change, and, to a lesser degree, trade—Trump channels Steve Bannon. But when it comes to violating other countries sovereignty, Trump has—with the exception of Russia—embraced the interventionism typical of his party’s foreign-policy elite.

This inconsistency was on flagrant display in his speech at the UN. On the one hand, Trump defended sovereignty as a universal ideal. On the other, he demanded that America’s enemies stop mistreating their people. The result was gobbledygook. Trump began his doublespeak early when, minutes into his speech, he said “we do expect all nations to uphold these sovereign duties to respect the interests of their own people.” But the whole point of sovereignty is that each government defines its people’s “interests” for itself, regardless of what other countries “expect.”

Trump went on to denounce the regime in Pyongyang for being “responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans” and to call the Iranian government a “corrupt dictatorship” that does not “use its resources to improve Iranian lives.” He attacked Bashar al-Assad for “the use of chemical weapons against his own citizens,” said the United States would “not lift sanctions on the Cuban government until it makes fundamental reforms” that allow “the Cuban people to live in freedom” and warned that in Venezuela “democratic institutions are being destroyed.” In making these demands in sovereignty’s name, Trump seemed wholly unaware that it is sovereignty that governments like Syria’s, North Korea’s, Cuba’s and Iran’s invoke, again and again, to resist America’s demands.

Then, to make his incoherence even more explicit, Trump declared that “our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests and their well-being.” That’s like saying that my respect for your right to do whatever you want in your garden should be a call to action for you to stop growing weed.

In demanding that America’s adversaries change their internal behavior, Trump was not saying anything new. Obama invoked some of the same human rights principles in speaking about some of the same countries. The difference is that, because he championed global interdependence and integration, he acknowledged—however tentatively—that these universal principles bound the United States, too. In saying that the United States had “worked with other nations to create higher and clearer standards for banking and taxation” and praising “our efforts to combat climate change” and declaring that America has “a unique responsibility to pursue the path of reducing our [nuclear] stockpiles,” Obama was endorsing the idea of reciprocity. He wasn’t disavowing America’s power disparity. He wasn’t suggesting that Gambia should have as much influence over America’s internal affairs as America has over Gambia’s. But he was suggesting that, because sovereignty is not absolute, it can’t be absolute for the United States either. At its best, he declared, the United States had “bound our power to international laws and institutions.”

For Trump, by contrast, sovereignty means both that no one can tell the United States what to do inside its borders and that the United States can do exactly that to the countries it doesn’t like. That’s not the liberal internationalism that Obama espoused. Nor is it the realism of some of Obama’s most trenchant critics. It is imperialism. General Pershing, in the Philippines, would have approved.