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Echoes of American history as Trump heads to United Nations

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On Sept. 19, President Trump will deliver his first address to the annual opening of the United Nations General Assembly. It will be a curious spectacle, revealing how capricious American politics can be. After eight years of one of the most multilaterally-inclined presidents in U.S. history, a bemused world will host the most nationalist-minded American leader in generations.

Since the Cold War’s end, U.S. foreign policy has zigged and zagged. And so have presidential messages from the U.N. podium. George H.W. Bush offered hopes of a “new world order,” only to see them erode in the gritty reality of the Balkans. Bill Clinton pledged to “expand and strengthen the world’s community of market-based democracies,” embracing globalization as a cure-all for the world’s ills.

{mosads}George W. Bush challenged the U.N. to prove its “relevance” against rogue regimes and terrorists — or find America prepared to go it alone. Barack Obama promised a “return” to multilateralism, only to discover how frustrating the U.N. Security Council could be. Despite their differences, these were all versions of internationalism, the lodestar for U.S. foreign policy since 1945.


Enter Trump, a throwback to the days before American globalism. His foreign policy echoes the era of isolationism that began almost a century ago. In 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Senate debated and ultimately rejected U.S. membership in the League of Nations, the forerunner of today’s United Nations. President Woodrow Wilson then implored voters to overturn the Senate’s verdict, by treating the November 1920 election as “a solemn referendum.” They ignored him, electing Warren G. Harding, an ethically-challenged Republican who had promised them a “return to normalcy.”

As Harding explained in clear if turgid prose, “America’s present need is not…submergence in internationality, but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” Accordingly, he told a joint session of Congress in April 1921, “In the existing League of Nations, world-governing with its superpowers, this Republic will have no part.” Consistent with these instincts, his administration — like those of Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover afterwards — pursued a nationalist and transactional foreign policy, rejecting any pretense of global leadership. Franklin Roosevelt, despite his internationalist sentiments, hewed largely to the same path, even as the global economy collapsed and world order crumbled.

It took Pearl Harbor to jar the United States from its detachment. The Japanese attack “ended isolationism for any realist,” conceded Sen. Arthur Vandenberg (R-Mich.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. World War II — and the Cold War that followed — cemented a bipartisan consensus on internationalism that lasted for 75 years. That era ended on Nov. 8, 2016, when Trump was elected on an “America First” platform. Gone are debates about whether the United States should lead “from the front” or “from behind.” The once “indispensable” nation has made itself dispensable.  

If a core conviction unites Trump and interwar isolationists, it is the determination to defend American sovereignty against the machinations of foreign governments, international organizations, and multilateral treaties. After the Great War, U.S. isolationists accused foreigners of having manipulated America into the war. The League of Nations would only add to these injuries, warned Sen. Philander Knox (R-Penn.). “A great catalog of unnatural self-restraints,” the new “world state” would entangle the country abroad, jeopardize American independence and constrain U.S. freedom of action.

Trump’s own mistrust of international organizations echoes these earlier complaints. According to the White House, the U.N. endangers the Constitution, limits U.S. power, and siphons taxpayer dollars. NATO allies are chiselers freeloading on American blood and treasure. Multilateral trade deals exploit American naïvete and reduce U.S. bargaining leverage. Even nonbinding agreements like the Paris climate accord threaten American “sovereignty.”

Given his instincts, Trump’s U.N. message is likely to be confrontational. Other presidents have criticized the U.N., of course, but they have framed their remarks in sorrow and implored the world body to live up to its charter mandate. Both George W. Bush and Obama used their bully pulpits to urge the U.N. to advance peace, promote development, and expand human freedom, using soaring language in the process. It is hard to imagine Trump — always more comfortable as bully than preacher — doing the same thing.

Although he was conciliatory when he met with U.N. Security Council permanent representatives at the White House in April, his budget request calls for drastic cuts in U.N. funding. In New York, expect him to accuse the U.N. of ingratitude for U.S. generosity, while making future U.S. financial contributions contingent on whether other nations support U.S. priorities and relieve its burdens. He will demand fealty to U.S objectives like ending North Korea’s nuclear program, keeping Iran’s feet to the fire, and crushing “radical Islamic terrorism.” And he will warn the U.N. not to take U.S. support for granted. It is time to put America first.

Such nationalist rhetoric will hearten the president’s populist base — the only audience that matters to Trump. His supporters are already convinced that the world body is beyond salvage — and that it is high time to get the United States out of the U.N. and the U.N. out of the United States. That is indeed the goal of the American Sovereignty Restoration Act, legislation introduced regularly in Congress, most recently in January by Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala).

Fortunately, that aspiration remains a minority view on Capitol Hill, even among Republican legislators. But one can easily imagine the president of the United States toying with the prospect, or even floating such an implicit threat from the dais, in a bid to impose his will on the United Nations. And that by itself testifies to how much Trump has upended the orthodoxies of U.S. foreign policy and the conventions of American diplomacy.

Stewart Patrick is the James Binger senior fellow in global governance at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of “The Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America with the World.”

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags Barack Obama Barack Obama Bill Clinton Donald Trump Foreign policy George Bush history international affairs Politics United Nations Woodrow Wilson

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