Of the “three beautiful pillars” President Trump listed in his speech this week at the UN General Assembly, only one really mattered: sovereignty. This was the concept he returned to again and again, and what he began and ended his speech calling for the defense of. The other two pillars—security and prosperity—received much less attention. Even during his brief address, however, Trump’s defense of sovereignty seemed to crack.
It started with a straightforward idea. “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government,” Trump declared. “But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
But Trump used the remainder of the speech to contradict the very notion that the United States would respect the sovereignty of others. He criticized leaders in Caracas for having “inflicted terrible pain and suffering,” the regime in Pyongyang for being “responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans,” and “the corrupt and destabilizing regime” in Havana.
He’s right, of course, even as he was selective in which nations he condemned for poor human rights practices. The president, for example, was silent about the horrific ethnic cleansing of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
Indeed, Trump appeared to recognize the contradiction when he said that “our respect for sovereignty is also a call for action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests, and their wellbeing, including their prosperity.” Quite so. All people do deserve such a government. Yet for the leader of the United States to voice that belief, or for Washington to support their development with action, is to break with the hard-nosed, interests-not-values idea of sovereignty that the president and his administration have championed as the core of their America First view of the world.
What’s a president to do? After all, contradiction can be poisonous in diplomacy. The solution, to be sure, is not to overcome the discrepancy by ignoring American values abroad in pursuit of some pure idea of national sovereignty. That’s a dead end, running counter to the postwar international order the United States has championed for decades.
Rather, the challenge for the sole superpower today is balancing national sovereignty with willing adherence to limited international agreements, institutions, and norms—which, by the way, end up furthering American values and interests. From the IMF and World Bank to the UN and NATO, the limited instances in which the United States has entered into such agreements have brought not weakness, but strength to powerful forces for security, wellbeing, and prosperity in the world—and not least to America itself.
All presidents become students of the history of the presidency while in office, and Trump is no exception. In his UN speech he approvingly mentioned the Marshall Plan and President Harry S Truman’s vision for boosting and integrating markets to revive European economies after the war. This start to what we now call the modern international order, and America’s continuing role in upholding that order, would assuredly be a rewarding topic for further study.
This Week’s Reads cover some of these issues, and others that I think are of interest. As always, please don’t hesitate to shoot me a note if you have any comments or concerns.
In recent years, a small but convincing subgenre of books has appeared making the case for optimism. No matter what bad news we see day to day, the optimists argue, the real story of our time has been the great rise from poverty and reduction of disease for millions around the world. Yet a new report from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation draws a few darks clouds over this otherwise sunny analysis. The report, reviewed by the Economist, notes that Sub-Saharan Africa continues to have a high birthrates that could keep the region in poverty for decades. As well, the fights against HIV, malaria, and other diseases have recieved less attention in recent years. All are worrying signs as programs like PEPFAR face budgets cuts.
David Ignatius/The Washington Post
Whether President Trump will stick to the Iran nuclear deal come mid-October is very much in question. But the questions that should contribute to his decision-making process are already well known, and expertly reviewed in this column by David Ignatius in the Washington Post. There are technical issues, such as Iran’s heavy water-stockpile. There are also non-nuclear issues that may sway the president, such as Iran’s support in Yemen and Syria. But the core question is simple, Ignatius writes: “Does this agreement, with all its flaws, make the United States and its allies safer than they would be with no agreement?”
Gardiner Harris/The New York Times
It’s the biggest event on the diplomatic calendar. The United Nations General Assembly brings together delegations from all over the world, drawing in US specialists to discuss a range of issues. But not so much this year, with the US State Department’s delegation expected to be about half the size it was last year. The reductions are part of Secretary Tillerson’s grand reorganizing, which so far includes cuts, vacancies, and no clear idea of how the department will meet all of its demands at home and abroad. I was reminded of George Shultz, Reagan’s secretary of state, who likens diplomacy to gardening. It’s easier to constantly tend the garden, taking care of the weeds when they’re small, he has said. Cuts to the State Department amount to cuts to the very people who would otherwise be doing the gardening.
David Miliband/The New York Times
Former British foreign secretary David Miliband is interested in the facts. And on the issues of refugees, the data are firmly on his side: “Providing sanctuary is not charity,” he writes. “Researchers have found that over a 20-year period, those who were admitted to the United States as refugees between the ages of 18 and 45 . . . will pay $21,000 more in taxes than they will receive in benefits.” As President Trump prepares to decide on the number of refugees the US will allow in, he should aim for 75,000, Miliband writes, which is in line with previous years. Doing so, he says, “will show that the White House has a head as well as a heart.”
Eswar Prasad/The New York Times
“China is fashioning a new form of multilateralism,” Eswar Prasad writes in the New York Times, “one in which it sets the tone and defines the rules of the game.” It should escape no one that a Beijing-led order could pose a serious challenge to the Washington-led postwar order. Beijing’s two-pronged approach involves lifting China’s clout in existing institutions such as the IMF and World Bank, but also building new parallel institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Prasad’s is a trenchant analysis of what may be the most important shift in the international order in our time.
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick/The Atlantic
Ken Burns and Lynn Novick are synonymous with moving documentaries bringing to life America’s rich history, and they have a new program to add to their achievements. On the Vietnam War, the new 10-part series is set to air on PBS. Here in the Atlantic, Burns and Novick reflect on a few of the major ideas from their series, especially on how the war forever altered America’s relationship with the White House. The essay expertly weaves broad themes and minute historical anecdotes that can only be accumulated through rigorous study of a topic.
Philip Stephens/Financial Times
Brussels will not be rushed into a deal on Brexit, no matter how much leaders in London want it, Philip Stephens writes in the Financial Times. The circumstances of triggering Article 50 favor EU leaders taking a slower pace. Nor should Prime Minister May expect any help from German Chancellor Merkel should she win reelection later in September. Merkel will be too preoccupied with the Eurozone and migrant crises to prioritize Britain’s departure, Stephens writes. The conclusion is necessarily stark: “Britain cannot leave the EU and expect to escape the consequences.”
Meghan L. O’Sullivan/The New York Times
Ask not just what the US energy boom can do within America. Ask what it can do for US interests and values abroad, too, writes Meghan L. O’Sullivan in the New York Times. For example, America’s growing independence from Middle Eastern oil, at the same time China is increasing its dependence, could be used as leverage to make Beijing a much more willing partner with Washington in that part of the world. As well, reducing Europe’s dependence on Russian natural gas, O’Sullivan writes, also reduces Moscow’s ability to use energy as a “political cudgel.” The piece is a convincing call to make the most of where American foreign and energy policies line up.