The New York Times claims Donald Trump "sketched out a radically different vision of the world order than his forebears" by "declaring Tuesday that sovereignty should be the guiding principle of affairs between nations." That is not remotely true. Nor is Trump unusual in employing "a strikingly selective definition of sovereignty," which the Times suggests also sets him apart from his predecessors. Still, it is worth considering the role that the concept of sovereignty plays in Trump's U.N. speech, because it clarifies the limits of international cooperation and illustrates the conflicting impulses that drive U.S. foreign policy.
When Trump talks about sovereignty, he is mostly talking about preserving the status quo by recognizing the authority of existing governments to decide what happens within the territories they control. There is very little moral content to this understanding of sovereignty, which does not begin to address the question of what makes a government or its actions legitimate. But that doesn't mean this barebones version of sovereignty is not useful. Other things being equal, a world where nation-states respect each other's borders (no matter how arbitrary they might be) is apt to be more secure, peaceful, and prosperous than a world where they don't. Each government has an interest in maintaining that principle, creating the common ground on which an organization like the U.N. is built.
Describing the benefits of sovereignty, Trump repeatedly lists peace, security, and prosperity. He says nothing about freedom or individual rights, with good reason. Respect for freedom and individual rights is not part of the international consensus, except perhaps at such a high level of abstraction that the terms become meaningless. "We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government," Trump says. "We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values."
So far, so good. But Trump adds that "we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation." Although there are bound to be arguments about the details, the duty of nation-states to respect each other's rights is the basis for a rough consensus. Not so their duty to "respect the interests of their own people," because who is to say what those are? The concept of sovereignty Trump is advocating implies that each country's government gets to make that call. If one national government tried to enforce its judgment of whether another was properly serving the interests of its citizens, it would be violating the latter's sovereignty. Trump's "two core sovereign duties" contradict each other.
That is just the beginning of Trump's incoherence. He says North Korea's nuclear weapons make the world more dangerous, which is an argument for joint action based on a threat to international security. But he also notes that "the depraved regime in North Korea" is "responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more." All of that is horrifyingly true, but if sovereignty requires respect for diverse "systems of government," it is not an argument for international intervention.
Trump likewise condemns Iran's mistreatment of Iranians, Syria's mistreatment of Syrians, Venezuela's mistreatment of Venezuelans, and Cuba's mistreatment of Cubans. He says the way those regimes treat their citizens justifies economic sanctions and even military action by other countries. But if sovereignty is agnostic about how people should be ruled, those responses amount to international aggression.
As the Times notes, Trump's outrage is selective. He praises the autocratic regime in Saudi Arabia for helping to fight terrorism, and he says nothing about human rights violations by U.S. allies or by great powers such as China and Russia. "It is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council," Trump says. That description applies to China as well as U.S. allies such as Egypt, the Philippines, and Saudi Arabia, all of which currently sit on the council.
Contrary to what the Times implies, however, such inconsistency is par for the course when it comes to U.S. foreign policy, which has long been torn between misplaced idealism and grubby realism. Trump calls North Korea's leaders a "band of criminals," which is an apt descripton of many national governments (or all of them, depending on your political philosophy). But some criminals are worse than others, and only some pose a threat outside the neighborhoods they control. Trump acknowledged that reality when he declared, during the presidential campaign, that "we can't continue to be the policeman of the world."
Yesterday Trump seemed to reject the idea that the United States has a duty to punish dictators, let alone replace them with democrats. Yet he defended U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela as a response to their internal policies and U.S. missile strikes against Syria as a response to the Assad regime's chemical attack on Syrian civilians. He said the United States has a responsibility to deter the use of chemical weapons, to force "fundamental reforms" in Cuba, and to help Venezuelans "regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy." Those goals do not seem to be based on the sober, hardheaded analysis of U.S. interests implied by Trump's promise to "always put America first."
Nor are they consistent with the way Trump describes the U.S. government's sovereignty, which unlike China's or Saudi Arabia's depends on the consent of the governed and is subject to constitutional constraints. "In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign," Trump says. "In foreign affairs, we are renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government's first duty is to its people, to our citizens—to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values."
While the purported duty to defend American values could be used to justify all manner of foreign meddling, the rest of that formulation seems about right to me. The point is not that foreign governments have a right to treat people however they choose, or that any actions they take should be immune from criticism as long as no borders are crossed. The point is that the U.S. government's mission does not include righting every wrong committed by every tyrant. It has a duty to its citizens, from whom it derives whatever legitimacy it has, to use their resources on their behalf.