For someone who appears acutely sensitive to slights, the laughter that greeted U.S. President Donald Trump’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly this week must hurt. Trump has often claimed that America has been laughed at by its adversaries, but he was speaking metaphorically. The spontaneous reaction to his comments Tuesday was real, even though U.S. foreign policy is no laughing matter.
Trump’s claim that he had made more progress than “almost any other administration in the history of our country” was greeted with laughs. Trump’s startled response was “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s OK.” Later, he claimed that his boast in the speech “was meant to get some laughter.” Trump is known for many things, but a sense of humor — especially one that makes him the target — is not among them.
Significantly, the audience was not laughing at his foreign policy. In fact, with rare exception, they were likely dismayed by his remarks. The message he delivered was consistent with that of previous speeches and the overall thrust of his thinking about America’s role in the world. It was a strident defense of sovereignty, a concept that is sacrosanct to the president and his foreign policy team.
Trump pledged in his remarks to the General Assembly that “we will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.” He was referring to the International Criminal Court, a body that the U.S. never joined. He rejected “the ideology of globalism,” and that bedrock belief is evident in his administration’s skepticism toward multilateral trade deals, the withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council and the Paris climate change agreement, and its rejection of the U.N. Global Compact for Migration. He criticized the World Trade Organization for allowing members “to rig the system in their favor.” Given the broadsides that Trump has leveled against that body, a U.S. withdrawal would not be a surprise.
Trump insisted that America will “never apologize for protecting its citizens,” and “America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination.” He added that he would “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.”
While such statements sound anodyne or even affirmative, it is hard to imagine a foreign policy that could do more damage to U.S. interests and standing. There is no record of global governance that has truly constrained sovereign decision-making. After all, governments must sign and ratify treaties or pass legislation to join international bodies: They choose restraint. When U.S. behavior is affected by such organizations, it is because Washington accepted those limitations. Indeed, no country has played a larger role in fashioning the rules and institutions of globalism than has the U.S., primarily because successive administrations have considered them among the best ways to advance U.S. national interests.
The perception of U.S. readiness to bind itself like other countries has been viewed as a distinctive and positive style of leadership. Unlike virtually every other hegemon or great power of the past, the U.S. has not sought to exempt itself from rules that governed the global system. That belief in equality has distinguished the U.S.: It is a marked contrast with the reported comment of Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi in 2010, who told the ASEAN Regional Forum that “there are big countries and there are small countries. China is a big country and that is a fact.”
Minutes after Trump promised to let other countries live and worship as they please, he denounced the Iranian government for fomenting terrorism and suppressing its own people. He called on the assembled governments “to isolate Iran’s regime” and to “support Iran’s people,” a blithe dismissal of the legitimacy of the democratically elected government of Tehran. He then called on the world to join him in imposing sanctions against Venezuela’s corrupt socialist government. Trump is not wrong to criticize the policies of the Maduro administration, but it is difficult to reconcile that call for sanctions with his pledge to respect national sovereignty.
America’s allies and partners should be worried by both the incoherence and the guiding concept at the heart of U.S. foreign policy. Friends and allies must step up, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has done in the trade arena, to fill the leadership vacuum. The distinguishing feature of the world that emerged from the rubble of World War II and persisted after the end of the Cold War was an acceptance that sovereignty could be limited and that state power was not absolute. Those tenets may have been violated, but they were never dismissed. U.S. rejection of those fundamental premises is no laughing matter.
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