Defending sovereignty vs. promoting democracy?



There was an echo of George W. Bush’s democracy promotion agenda in President Donald Trump’s address to the 72nd Session of the UN General Assembly. But unlike Mr. Bush, this president made it clear he had no desire to impose America’s political system on other countries, The New York Times reports.

“Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions,” Trump said.

“Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace.” But, he added: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government.”

The speech was a success and “a useful, principled, and accurate reminder that successful nation-states will be the key to addressing the world’s challenges,” according to Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Realism and Democracy: American Foreign Policy after the Arab Spring. If Trump’s mantra in this speech was the goal of “security, prosperity, and peace,” which “strong, sovereign nations” could attain, his handling of freedom was less firm, he writes for The National Review:

The speech did contain that word, but terms like “liberty” and, more significantly, “human rights” were absent. Mostly he discussed the absence of freedom when he criticized rotten dictatorships, as in “the enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom” and the American goal to help the people of Venezuela “regain their freedom.” Yet he did note the grand alliances that had “tilted the world toward freedom since World War II,” and in his peroration he said “we will fight together, sacrifice together, and stand together for peace, for freedom, for justice.

But to cast the Polish, French and British resistance to Nazi dictatorship as motivated by “patriotism” for the “nations that they loved” is a superficial rendering of what was in fact an existential drive to save democratic and free societies from a genocidal steamroller, The Washington Post notes:

The United States, too, fought and sacrificed for these hallowed principles. And when World War II ended, the United Nations was created to protect these values — the charter says to protect “faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person” — and not just to provide a new system for nation-states to get along.

Trump’s speech rejected Bush’s argument that the best path to security involves promoting democratic systems around the world, The LA Times adds.

“This administration takes exactly the opposite approach to that and probably the exact opposite approach to the people in that room,” said James Carafano, a fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation who advised Trump during the transition. “Institutions are not what holds the world together. They are standing on what holds the world together.”

Other analysts saw continuity with the Bush agenda. The speech showed that Trump had embraced his inner neocon, claimed Jacob Heilbrunn, the editor of The National Interest.

“It was notable that during his speech at the UN, Trump veered from claiming, on the one hand, that it was imperative to respect the national sovereignty of individual nations to alleging, on the other, that there is no burking the necessity of taking out regimes that he, and he alone, deems inimical to American interests and values,” he wrote for The Spectator.

Trump’s “language at the U.N. was a stark departure from the policies of America’s two other twenty-first-century Presidents,” The New Yorker’s Robin Wright adds. “George W. Bush’s strategy emphasized the promotion of democracy and nation-building, while Barack Obama was big on human rights, global outreach, and resolving old tensions.”

the president “lauded the Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe after World War II, one of the great achievements of American foreign policy. But his apparent relegation of values like human rights and democracy promotion appears to ignore the moral leadership role that Washington has played in the Western alliance in the 70 years since,” another analyst adds.


In his speech, he used the word “sovereign” or “sovereignty” 21 times, The Times notes. 

The world’s autocrats would delight in the prospect of an American president elevating national sovereignty above the promotion of democracy, some observers suggested.

“It’s very popular with China. With Russia. And with developing countries in the Non-Aligned Movement,” said Richard Gowan, with the European Council on Foreign Relations. “It’s appealing to a lot of the non-Western countries in the room,” he said, adding that the speech had “given a rhetorical gift to countries that are anti-liberal intervention and anti-human rights.”

Furthermore, “Kim Jong Un, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Assad, Maduro and other dictators are all pursuing the same kind of ‘me first’ policy”, notes Council on Foreign Relations analyst Max Boot. “They are committing atrocities and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction precisely in order to protect their ‘sovereignty,’ as they define it.”

On one issue, Trump tried to be crystal clear, according to Jason Brodsky, policy director at United Against Nuclear Iran, and Aaron David Miller of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President”:

The United States would not seek to intervene in the affairs of other nations and would respect their systems of government. There was plenty of talk about promoting prosperity, security and counterterrorism but little about human rights and democracy promotion.

“It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

Indeed, earlier in the speech, he referred to the post–World War II Marshall Plan as being “built on the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent, and free,” The National Review adds:

Yes, the rebuilding of our allies (and the remaking of our former foes) did result in prosperous, independent nations, but America’s post-war strategy put a heavy emphasis on the promotion of democracy, the rule of law, and markets — not just because these things are conducive to human thriving, but because it is in our cold-eyed interest to see them spread around the world.

The tension between national sovereignty and universal rights has thrummed through the UN’s work like an electric charge ever since the organization was founded, The Economist notes:

Mr Trump, in his speech to the General Assembly, did not so much resolve that tension as pretend that it does not exist. This required some heroic squinting at the historical record, as when the president described the founding of the UN as a great bet on “the independent strength of its members”, born out of a “great victory” by patriotic French, British, Polish and other warriors against “evil” in the second world war. …In fact the post-war American strategy was a bet on promoting closer integration in war-ravaged Europe. … Truman’s special message to Congress on the Marshall Plan, delivered in December 1947, explicitly defend[ed] American aid as buttressing the decision by 16 European countries to “break away from the self-defeating actions of narrow nationalism.”

“This misreading of history matters,” as the speech “marks a break with decades of post-war American policy,” the paper adds.

Ideology first

The administration’s foreign policy approach has been characterized as one of principled realism, but some observers suggest its international agenda is neither principled nor pragmatic, but guided by ideology first.

Some analysts played down the inconsistency in Mr. Trump’s approach, saying it was a recurring feature of American foreign policy, under presidents from both political parties, because the nation’s values and strategic interests do not always align, The NY Times adds:

“His specific comments about Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran indicate he does not believe the concept of sovereignty immunizes them from criticism or endless abuse of their citizens,” said Elliott Abrams, who served as a senior diplomat and policy-maker under Presidents Reagan and George W. Bush.…..The president, he said, was also obviously still grappling with how to deal with the concept of human rights. Though Mr. Trump spoke broadly about freedom, he never explicitly referred to individual rights.

“How does the promotion of freedom fit in?” said Abrams, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy. “I still don’t think we know the answer to that.”

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