Presidential addresses to the United Nations General Assembly don’t get a lot of press here at home, but they do matter to listeners around the world. And those who heard President Trump’s first such address earlier this week may have noticed one concept repeated throughout: sovereignty.
Most American high school students learn about sovereignty in the domestic context: popular sovereignty, or the notion that power rests with the people, is one of our political system’s most admirable and distinguishing features. In international relations parlance however, a country is considered ‘sovereign’ if it has control over its own land.
Sovereignty gained traction as a guiding principle in the international system in the mid-1600s as “nation-states” — political units matching peoples and contiguous territories — began asserting authority against empires, religious authorities, and royal families. (This was first possible only in Europe; colonized peoples around the world had to fight much harder and longer for control of their own destinies.)
Simplified history aside, this all sounds like a good thing. Countries should be in charge of themselves, free from foreign influence and external machinations. So what’s wrong with President Trump repeating that during his big speech? The devil here is in the context. President Trump’s repeated invoking of “sovereignty” came across like a dog whistle — a wink to authoritarian regimes and a warning the rest of the world.
One problem with talking about sovereignty today is that authoritarian regimes use the same concept to nefarious ends. China, for example, rejects criticism of its human rights record in the name of sovereignty — think “what we do to our political prisoners is none of your business.” And Russia talks about sovereignty to justify its annexation of Crimea, claiming that the Ukrainians who live there are really Russians who want to be ruled as such (though they aren’t, and they don’t).
These countries have also used sovereignty as an excuse to stop international action in crises where leaders are massacring their own people, including when they want those same leaders staying in power (e.g. Russia, which benefits from Bashar Al-Assad’s continued brutal rule in Syria). So when President Trump emphasizes sovereignty over and over again, it undercuts the moral authority of the United States to hold other nations to a higher set of common standards.
But it won’t just be the bad guys who hear a backwards message in the president’s speech. By championing strong and independent states, President Trump was undermining the notion that countries need to be working together rather than at cross-purposes to solve today’s global challenges. With our security and prosperity tied together with that of folks around the world whether we like it or not, now is the time to be extending a hand in cooperation for the long run rather than stepping back.
It’s why the America First ideology makes so little sense at this moment. It may be reassuring for some of President Trump’s supporters to hear him rail against handouts, but the fact of the matter is that it is America who needs the world’s help now more than ever. No man is an island, and no country is either — no matter what walls we build or doors we shut.
So what should we have heard in President Trump’s inaugural address to the United Nations? What underlying concept would better guide his foreign policy approach? In short, multilateralism: We must insist that collective action is the key to defeating everything from violent extremism to climate change and pandemic disease to nuclear proliferation.
And just as we have always stepped up to fight big problems, America should be leading the way rather than promoting a free-for-all void of standards or values. International institutions can do good in the world if we work hard to make them robust, proactive, and accountable; turning our backs on what the Greatest Generation built after World War II is an approach as lazy as it is self-fulfilling.
All of this may sound like semantics and nitpicking for a speech that few Americans tuned in for. But when the President of the United States speaks, the world listens — and what they heard was the wrong message for the reality we face.
Graham F. West is the Communications Director for Truman Center for National Policy and Truman National Security Project. Email West at email@example.com.