Perhaps the most remarkable thing about President Trump’s speech to the U.N. hasn’t been remarked upon much. It wasn’t the bluster about North Korea or Iran, it wasn’t the call for other nations to carry their weight.
It was Trump’s clear departure from the globalist tendencies of his predecessor. President Obama saw a world in which nations move ever closer together, with borders eventually becoming unnecessary. He saw himself - and the United States - as citizens of the world.
Trump has no such utopian vision. Instead, he sees sovereignty as every nation’s right.
In 2016, here’s what Obama had to say to the U.N.: “At this moment we all face a choice. We can choose to press forward with a better model of cooperation and integration. Or we can retreat into a world sharply divided, and ultimately in conflict, along age-old lines of nation and tribe and race and religion.”
And here is Trump’s response in 2017: “Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. 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.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Peter Beinart says the two presidents have sharply different worldviews.
“In demanding that America’s adversaries change their internal behavior, Trump was not saying anything new,” Beinart wrote. “Obama invoked some of the same human rights principles in speaking about some of the same countries. The difference is that, because he championed global interdependence and integration, he acknowledged - however tentatively - that these universal principles bound the United States, too… Obama was endorsing the idea of reciprocity. He wasn’t disavowing America’s power disparity. He wasn’t suggesting that Gambia should have as much influence over America’s internal affairs as America has over Gambia’s. But he was suggesting that, because sovereignty is not absolute, it can’t be absolute for the United States either.”
Trump sees things differently.
Beinart overstates the case, though - he claims that now Trump is an imperialist. He’s not, he remains an America First populist, with all of those isolationist tendencies. He criticized Iran and North Korea and Venezuela; he did not propose preemptively invading them.
As Reagan-era diplomat Elliot Abrams told the New York Times, “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.”
And that’s reasonable.
The real point here is the magnitude of the departure from Obama-style globalism. Obama believes in a directional “march of history” - shown by his favorite criticism of those policies and people he didn’t like, as being “on the wrong side of history” -that Trump realizes is misguided.
Trump is closer to the stark reality we see in a dangerous world. That’s why strength - and sovereignty - are still necessary.