NEW YORK – U.S. President Donald Trump’s foreign policy is often caricatured as a mass of contradictions. He rails against the dumb wars of his predecessors, but has yet to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria. He taunted and threatened North Korea’s tyrannical leader, only to meet him later in Singapore for a lavish summit. Trump kisses up to Russia’s autocratic president, but his government sells weapons to Russia’s enemies and sanctions its senior officials.
There is some truth to these criticisms, but they miss a larger point. While it’s hard to say there is a Trump doctrine, there has emerged a theme to his statecraft: American sovereignty.
This was the message Tuesday of Trump’s address Tuesday to the United Nations General Assembly. “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy,” he said, referring to the U.N.’s International Criminal Court.
In return, he promised to “honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.” He urged the assembled leaders to “make their countries great again.”
This rhetoric may sound familiar, but it’s actually a break from the past. Previous U.S. presidents have, to varying degrees, embraced the U.N. and other international bodies as means for America to shape the world. Trump, by contrast, sees the international system as a way for the world to constrain America.
So in his speech, Trump emphasized how his administration has rejected what he calls “the ideology of globalism.” The most obvious example is the U.S. withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Senate never ratified that agreement as a treaty; before any member of Congress voted on it, President Barack Obama got a U.N. Security Council resolution in support of it.
There are other examples. Trump announced the U.S. will not participate in the U.N. Global Compact for Migration. He boasted that the U.S. had withdrawn from the U.N. Human Rights Council, after other member states rejected his administration’s proposed reforms.
Trump was particularly pointed about the International Criminal Court. U.S. wariness of the court is not new. Neither George W. Bush nor Barack Obama tried to ratify the Treaty of Rome that created this tribunal. Earlier this month, Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, went further, promising to sanction the court and prosecute its officials if it launched investigations into the U.S. or its allies.
Trump’s emphasis on American sovereignty also has implications for trade. In his speech, he singled out the World Trade Organization for allowing members “to rig the system in their favor” by engaging in product dumping and intellectual property theft. (It was an obvious dig at China.)
For many foreign policy experts, Trump’s talk about sovereignty is balderdash. The international institutions that the U.S. helped create after World War II were designed not only to prevent conflict, advance trade and promote freedom, they also rigged the system in America’s favor. The U.S. has one of five vetoes at the U.N. Security Council. It controls the largest share of votes at the International Monetary Fund. The U.S. military provides the logistics and supply chain for U.N. peacekeeping. A skilled president should try to use the system to its benefit, instead of rejecting it out of hand.
Maybe so. But a lot has happened, in the world and in Turtle Bay, since the U.N. charter was signed in San Francisco 73 years ago. It’s not just that the U.N. has failed to prevent conflicts between or within nations. It’s that the U.N. itself has allowed its worst members to corrupt it. That’s why so many were shamed after the U.N. was forced to open its books on Iraq’s oil-for-food program, and why U.N. peacekeeping missions have faced scandal after scandal.
Trump is half right: The U.S. would be foolish to allow a U.N. court to sit in judgment of its soldiers. U.S. military action should not be subject to a veto from China, France, Russia or the United Kingdom. But the U.N.’s structural flaw is not just the threat it poses to the sovereignty of its members. It’s the deference it pays to the sovereignty of rogues.
Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.