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.”