Commentary on President Trump’s Tuesday United Nations speech ranged from astonishment at the tone — calling a foreign leader “Rocket Man” is not par for the course — to dismissive. “Trump’s gonna Trump,” as one observer described the Beltway reaction. As is often the case, both reactions overlook how explicitly the president is laying out a worldview, even a doctrine, that filters US commitments and cooperation beyond our borders through the prism of national sovereignty. If you want to understand one of the main fault lines in US foreign policy thinking, now and in the years to come — and not limited to Trump — the speech is a good place to start.
Woven in among the standard GOP-president-goes-to-the-UN lines and the stump speech histrionics was a strongly argued worldview quite different from what the international community is used to hearing from Americans of either party. It’s the idea that sovereignty, or American control over every aspect of life on American soil and for Americans anywhere, is paramount, and that the existing tissue of international institutions and rules, including the UN, is only valuable insofar as it serves to shore up US sovereignty.
That means the arrangements that internationalists perceive as core to the daily routine of travel and commerce — trade treaties, navigation rules, passport regimes — as well as fundamental security and rights standards such as the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty are not binding on the United States.
To much of the US political and national security establishments, raised on two generations of Cold War alliances and US domination of post-World War II international institutions, this worldview is either nonsensical or fringe. But Trump is not alone: It happens to be the worldview of the man who came in second in the 2016 GOP primary, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
Like Trump, Cruz is often perceived as having no core beliefs on national security and foreign policy, allowing his positions to be shaped entirely by political expediency. This is a misapprehension. Cruz’s commitment to an originalist interpretation of the Constitution includes the belief that it requires holding American national interest apart from ties of commerce, values, or alliance. As he puts it, “I personally have been passionate for a long, long time about protecting US sovereignty.”
Cruz has wielded sovereignty arguments with great power in his career. As solicitor general of Texas, he won a Supreme Court fight to execute a convicted Mexican murderer, denying his rights under a consular treaty prescribing procedures for arrests of foreign nationals — a case he was widely expected to lose — by arguing that the federal government could not bind the state of Texas to follow international legal precedent. And as a senator-elect, he invoked the sovereigntist leanings of GOP voters with such menace that observers credited him for helping derail the ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities — again, bucking the bipartisan national security establishment.
Before Cruz was even sworn in as a senator, he visited the GOP caucus lunch while it was under discussion and, in his words to the New Yorker’s Jeff Toobin, “urged my soon-to-be colleagues to protect U.S. sovereignty.” Sen. Dick Durbin described the effect of Cruz’s intervention: “These people walked out scared as hell.”
For conservative sovereigntists like Cruz, treaties and treaty regimes, such as the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (which the US Senate failed to ratify in 2012) or the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, have no application. Written and customary international law doesn't apply, as Cruz argued successfully in the Texas death penalty case. Not only do human rights not transcend borders but copyright, taxation, and trade dispute resolution mechanisms don't either.
Outsiders get confused about this wing of the GOP because, like Cruz, it blends skepticism of international arrangements with a belief in the efficacy of force that is usually more associated with neoconservatives. Trump’s speech should be understood as an effort to sew together the conservative sovereigntists who hold these views with the wing of the GOP that has accepted international law and institutions, seeing them as a mode fur furthering US interests and values — not least, US business.
For establishment conservatives, Trump nods to US alliances, to US leadership for ideals and humanitarianism, and he acknowledges that the UN does have value. Any GOP president could have “appreciated” UN agencies’ “vital humanitarian assistance in areas that have been liberated from ISIS” and the UN’s “beautiful vision” of working “side by side on the basis of mutual respect.”
But then Trump also takes time — as no major public figure has since Pat Buchanan, and no elected official has in 70 years — to refract every aspect of US interaction with the United Nations through the lens of US sovereignty. The role of international organizations, he says, is to allow nations to work together to secure their sovereignty — against terrorism, nuclear weapons, migration, socialism, and free trade.
This is the polar opposite of a view that was novel when espoused by President Bill Clinton 20 years ago, and has mellowed to a bipartisan cliché of American public life: that some challenges such as terrorism, nuclear weapons, and migration are so large and complex that they can only be solved collectively, in an environment where, by implication, sovereignty is not paramount.
Internationalists have been reassuring each other for years that majorities of Americans, when polled, favor US alliances and strong engagement with international institutions. But because of partisan polarization, anti-internationalists have currently concentrated in the GOP and among Trump’s supporters. The president won the GOP nomination, and maintains his hold on the party, not by embracing a sovereigntist agenda full on but by recognizing that globalist rhetoric no longer swept voters in its wake, partly replacing it with sovereigntist arguments.
He is also strengthening a set of like-minded actors outside the US, of which Vladimir Putin’s Russia is most powerful but is far from alone. When Trump said in New York that parts of the world are “going to hell,” he wasn’t wrong. But without exception, today’s infernos of human suffering are places where a state is abusing its residents with no consequences, like Myanmar, where more than half a million members of the Rohingya minority have been killed or forced to flee; or where the prize of who will be sovereign is so hard fought for that civilian lives are no object, as in Yemen and South Sudan. Sovereigntist rhetoric puts the US on the side of governments like these that routinely mistreat their people in the name of state interests.
This makes it harder to argue a morality-based case against the nasty regimes in Pyongyang and Tehran, and it makes it harder for any US partner to believe that Washington will stick to its word. This goes some way toward explaining why, while Trump proclaimed the six-party deal that halted Iran’s nuclear weapons program “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the US has ever entered into,” he came to New York with no support for abrogating it. Not from any of the US allies who helped negotiate it, not from Russia, and not even from the security hawks in his Cabinet.
Sovereigntists will respond that international norms and institutions didn’t stop North Korea from developing a nuclear weapon, nor did they halt the carnage in Syria. And they will return to the idea that was central to international relations for most of human history: that, as Trump said at the UN, the job of every nation is to put itself first, unreservedly.
Trump’s UN speech has now updated that construct for the 21st century. Internationalists, from Bernie Sanders to Hillary Clinton to Marco Rubio, need to prepare to update their own assumptions and worldview.