Donald Trump’s Very Backwards-Looking United Nations Speech

In previous speeches to the United Nations General Assembly, Donald Trump has used the rostrum to backtrack from historic American commitments to human rights and collective security in favor of a worldview that promotes sovereignty over international cooperation.  In 2017, he used the General Assembly platform to threaten the annihilation of North Korea; and in 2018 his remarks focused on his America-first agenda. 

This year, Donald Trump’s tone was far more muted than in year’s past. But the substance of his remarks echoed a variation of the same antiquated notions that there is an inherent tension between national sovereignty and collective action in support of common goals.

“If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty”

Typically, it is the non-democratic countries at the United Nations, like China, that use appeals to national sovereignty as a way to deflect the criticism of how they conduct domestic affairs. Typically, the United States has been a counter-weight to those arguments and has promoted universal ideals like human rights and the right to self-determination. But under the Trump administration, those ideals have largely been abandoned, with Trump parroting arguments long favored by non-democratic regimes.

Even though this has become routine by now, it is still worth emphasizing how deviant these remarks are from a long tradition of American support for universal ideals, like freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and the rights of citizens to set their democratic futures. “If you want democracy, hold onto your sovereignty,” he said seemingly reversing the causal relationship between American support for democracy abroad and the advance of liberty around the world. The United States may fall short of living up to those ideals, but at least in rhetoric the US has been supportive of this worldview–at least until now.

To be sure, there were some exceptions to this invocation of sovereignty to the extent it suited the parochial interests of the moment. This includes slamming Iran for its human rights abuses, criticizing the Maduro regime in Venezuela and calling for China to respect the rights of the people of Hong Kong. But for the most part, his speech sought to create an artificial divide between people who support ideals of human rights and international action to confront global problems like climate change. “The future does not belong to globalists, it belongs to patriots,” he said.

A Speech Largely Aimed at a Domestic Audience

Every speech by every leader at the United Nations tends to balance domestic political priorities with a foreign policy message the speaker seeks to relay to the presidents and prime minsters in the audience. Donald Trump’s speech this year titled more heavily towards a domestic audience than in previous years. This includes touching on issues that animate some core domestic constituencies who have long targeted the UN’s work on reproductive health.

Over the last nearly twenty years, Republican presidents have sought to restrict US funding for agencies that support reproductive and sexual health, falsely asserting that these agencies support abortion. This has included restricting funding for the UN Population Fund. Like the George W. Bush administration, the Donald Trump administration refuses to provide any US funding for this agency. But unlike in previous Republican administrations, the Trump White House is taking additional steps behind the scenes to prevent the UN and UN documents from even mentioning reproductive and sexual health. At a United Nations  meeting on health care yesterday, the US Secretary of Health and Human Services railed against using “ambiguous” terms” like ‘reproductive health,’ which he see’s as code for “abortion.” (It’s not.)

In his UN speech today, echoed these sentiments. “Global bureaucrats have no business attacking the sovereignty of nations that want to protect life,” he said in a clear node to certain domestic constituencies in the United States. Trump similarly railed against the UN Arms Trade Treaty, which the NRA in particular has used as a key fundraising tool by falsely claiming that it is a threat to domestic gun laws in the United States. And, of course, much of the speech reflected Trump’s nativist policies of restricting the rights of asylum seekers at the southern US border. (One exception of Trump’s appeal to both sovereignty and conservative domestic constituents was his expressed support for LGBT rights abroad, including calling on countries to decriminalize same-sex relations.)

In all, the speech reflected a broad retreat from traditional American values that have helped create the United Nations 74 years ago as a platform to craft global solutions to global problems.  In a world in which American power is declining relative to the advancement of other global centers, a decision to spurn collective action in favor of atavistic appeals to sovereignty may prove to be shortsighted.