President Trump has a new favorite word: sovereignty. He used it at least 21 times during his debut speech to the United Nations. He used it determinedly, deliberately and deliberatively, knowing exactly what it would mean to his followers in the United States. But to those in that U.N. hall, and those listening around the world, it probably meant something very different. In fact, it probably meant something quite opposite.
For his fan base, and for U.S. domestic audiences in general, “sovereignty” turns out to be a quite clever word choice. One had wondered how President Trump would square the anti-global, nationalist and blatantly anti-U.N. content of his version of “make America great again” with now hobnobbing at an organization he has famously described as “not a friend of democracy ... not a friend to freedom ... not a friend even to the United States of America.” Sovereignty is how he squared it.
Also wrapped in the repeated use of this word was the defiant message that although he is now part of what he once called “just a club for people to get together, talk and have a good time,” President Trump is not one of them. Newt Gingrich, for example, heard exactly what the president wanted him to hear: a “strategy of a sovereignty-based patriotism” as a clear alternative to “globalist desire.”
Those gathered in at the U.N. this week, and not just the card-carrying “globalists” among them, do probably realize that President Trump is not one of them. But it is very unlikely that they heard anything remotely similar to what Gingrich did in the president’s insistent invocation of the idea of sovereignty.
In the context of such a gathering in that room and standing in front of those iconic green tiles that President Trump believes are “cheap” and should be replaced with “beautiful large marble slabs,” the word sovereignty has a long and particular history, one that stands in near contradiction to how the 45th president of the United States used it.
In global politics, and certainly at the U.N., sovereignty is usually a term invoked by countries who perceive themselves to be misunderstood, marginalized, victimized, stigmatized and, frankly, weak. Not always, but most often, it is used by those who think they are small and weak in order to defend themselves against an onslaught of unwanted norms, such as democracy and human rights, that they feel are being imposed on them by the big and strong.
In fact, it is a particularly favorite credo of nations that consider themselves being targeted by the United States, including all of those now included in President Trump’s new version of the “axis of evil.” North Korea, a nation the president threatens to “totally destroy” and whose leader he calls “rocket man,” is particularly fond of invoking sovereignty as its argument against U.N. sanctions. Characteristically, speaking at this very U.N. forum two years ago, the North Korean foreign minister argued that conducting nuclear tests was his country’s “legitimate right” as a “sovereign state.”
One particular leader who made sovereignty as central a plank to his view of the U.N. and of world affairs as Trump now has, was Fidel Castro. Of course, for Cuba, the sovereignty ideal was invoked nearly entirely to suggest that the United States did not respect it. For example, in his famous 1960 speech to the U.N. General Assembly denouncing what he called U.S. “imperialism and colonialism,” Castro used the word “sovereignty” eight times, including in proclaiming that “the United States government cannot be for the integrity and sovereignty of nations.” President Trump, with his impressive 21 mentions, obviously disagrees.
U.N. archives are full of despots and dictators using sovereignty as their justification for flaunting international norms. But much more than that, it is littered with small, vulnerable and weak nations invoking sovereignty as their safeguard against exploitation. What one does not find there, until now, is a major power, and particularly the United States, doing anything remotely similar.
The idea of sovereignty, and in fact, the notion that all nations can, should and do act in their own interests, is and has always been absolutely foundational to the theory as well as the practice of all international relations. Simply stating this again and again, even if it is by the American president, is neither new or interesting. It is merely a restatement of the obvious.
What was very new, very interesting, and certainly not obvious is how this American president invoked sovereignty and that he did so on the world stage. The reversal of language the United States has traditionally used in the U.N. was as stark as it was purposeful, from common interests to self-interest, from collective action to competition, from sovereign equality to sovereignty. The image, as many on social media commented, was not of a “United” Nations, but of every nation for itself.
It was a nice touch that President Trump reminded his U.N. audience of the first three words of the U.S. Constitution. He forgot to mention, or may not have known, that the first words of the U.N. Charter are the same, with a slight but important addition: “We the peoples of the United Nations.” That recognition might have made it a very different speech.
In the 72 years since the U.N. was first created, mostly by and largely in the image of the United States, there has been a consistent bipartisan consensus among all American presidents that the United States must be seen as its principal leader. Not always, and not by everyone, but at most times and in most ways, the United States has, in fact, held that role. But the language of sovereignty, so long associated in world affairs with weakness and vulnerability, is not the language of world leadership.
Yes, there was bellicose chest-beating targeting North Korea, Iran and Venezuela, but it was made cartoonish by schoolyard name-calling. No, a call to high moral principle and common purpose was noticeable only for its omission. The tone was rich in demands of what the world needed to do for America. Little was on offer about what America could do for the world. Not even a polite note of sympathy for Rohingya refugees or a minimal offer to assist Bangladesh in hosting them.
President Trump may or may not have intended to sound as if he was abandoning the long-held American ambition and assertion of world leadership. But to those listening to it with non-American ears, too much of the speech would have sounded too much like an anthem of abdication.