Donald Trump’s speech to the United Nations does its best to form a synthesis out of Steve Bannon’s nationalism and George W. Bush’s foreign policy—but it’s not exactly a coherent combination, and we can already see its blind spots.
It has been a bit odd to see Bush-era neoconservatives applauding Trump’s speech, but it’s easy to understand why. Trump trashed the Iran deal and threw down some deadly threats against North Korea, which is relief after years of the Obama administration’s passivity. (President Obama loved what I call “off-ramp diplomacy“—always seeking the “off-ramp” that would not actually resolve a crisis but would temporarily remove it from the president’s plate.) More deeply, though, Trump’s speech actually incorporates recognizable elements from Bush-era foreign policy, particularly on the subject of terrorism. Like this:
We must deny the terrorists safe haven, transit, funding, and any form of support for their vile and sinister ideology. We must drive them out of our nations. It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups like al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban, and others that slaughter innocent people. The United States and our allies are working together throughout the Middle East to crush the loser terrorists and stop the reemergence of safe havens they use to launch attacks on all of our people.
With the exception of one distinctively Trumpian turn of phrase (calling terrorists “losers,” which I can’t really complain about), this is a hauntingly familiar recitation of the core of the Bush Doctrine.
That’s no surprise when you look at who is left in President Trump’s cabinet. He came into office surrounded by a coterie of quasi-isolationist “nationalists” in the mold of Steve Bannon, but one by one they have been purged from the administration, including Bannon himself. Between Trump’s new chief of staff, John Kelly, Secretary of Defense James Mattis, and National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster, national security policy in the Trump White House is now largely being shaped by men who rose during the Bush years and are sympathetic to its overall foreign policy goals.
This is not a subversion of our electoral system. It is the system working as intended. Our system requires that the president act through his advisors and cabinet officers, who are mostly drawn from senior figures with experience and a long track record in government. This makes it hard for one man to radically change the country’s ideological direction or long-term policy priorities—and that’s how thing are supposed to work.
The only member of the “nationalist” camp remaining in the administration in any prominent position is Stephen Miller, a White House policy advisor and also Trump’s chief speechwriter. So we can see in this speech the effort to merge elements of the Bush-era policy being re-established by top military and foreign policy strategists with the rhetoric of Bannonite nationalism.
Yet there is something lost in the synthesis. What is lost, primarily, is the central idea of a freedom agenda—the idea that freedom and representative government are crucially important to the peace and security of the world, to America’s vision for the direction it wants the world to go, and even for America’s own identity.
The central theme of Trump’s speech was “sovereignty,” which Trump defined in the following way:
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. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is [the] foundation for cooperation and success.
Well, all right, but what should these sovereign states do with their sovereignty to ensure the flourishing of their citizens? We get no specific answer, but we can notice one glaring omission. At almost every point where George W. Bush might have mentioned “freedom” or “democracy,” Trump substituted something else. He talked about “culture,” “needs,” “security,” “dignity,” “peace,” and above all “interests.” Thus, “we must fulfill our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests, and their futures.” We need “strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace.” At the end, Trump summarizes his vision this way:
[S]trong, sovereign, and independent nations—nations that are rooted in their histories and invested in their destinies; nations that seek allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer; and most important of all, nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries, their fellow citizens, and for all that is best in the human spirit.
Freedom is certainly mentioned at a few spots but it pointedly missing at many others. Consider Trump’s peculiar exegesis of World War II: “We must never forget that those heroes who fought against evil also fought for the nations that they loved. Patriotism led the Poles to die to save Poland, the French to fight for a free France, and the Brits to stand strong for Britain.”
So the defeat of an aggressive nationalist dictatorship, Nazi Germany, was really a victory for…nationalism? There is only one country I can think of that has long held precisely this perspective on World War II. It is the Russians who view that war not primarily as the defeat of tyranny but as a defense of Mother Russia, as the Great Patriotic War. No, I’m not suggesting that Trump’s view of World War II is a result of Russian propaganda or “collusion.” Rather, it is the sign of a vague ideological affinity with Russian-style nationalism.
Trump is never more frightening than when he is talking about America’s own history, where he inevitably leaves out the most important bits. For example, he cites John Adams on the “revolution in the minds and hearts of the people” by which Americans “understood that we were a nation.” In actual fact, as far as America’s history and culture were concerned, the Americans viewed themselves as British right up to the end. As late as 1774, Thomas Jefferson wrote a pamphlet proclaiming the “rights of British America,” and the Founders always described themselves as defending the traditional “rights of Englishmen.” America would not have separated from Britain on the basis of national identity or culture, because we were British. We separated from them on the basis of individual rights and limits on the power of government. You can look it up, because we actually published a declaration detailing these causes.
But Trump doesn’t tend to think of the world in these terms. He ends his speech with a call for “a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirits, their pride, their people, and their patriotism.” And here is how he defines patriotism:
Are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their futures? Do we revere them enough to defend their interests, preserve their cultures, and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?
Notice that liberty is not on the list. “Interests” and “culture,” but not liberty. Yet Americans have traditionally regarded liberty as the central defining characteristic of our civic culture and as our primary interest, particularly in foreign policy. From the beginning we defined ourselves as the global standard-bearer for liberty and the chief nemesis of tyranny.
Trump’s downgrading of our national interest in liberty leads him to specifically reject the promotion of liberty. In one passage, he says, “We are guided by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.” For those who follow this closely, what he’s saying is: democracy-promotion is out, the freedom agenda is out, we’re going back to the realpolitik of “shared interests.”
Yet this is not a position that can be consistently maintained in dealing with the actual, realistic condition of the world. The importance of liberty is not just an Ivory Tower abstraction but a longstanding pattern borne out by history. Countries without political freedom, countries that do not gain the “consent of the governed,” governments that impose themselves on their subjects for the purpose of plunder or arbitrary rule are inherently illegitimate, and that lack of legitimacy makes them fundamentally unstable and insecure. Such regimes are a threat to every country around them, not only because of the internal chaos and turmoil they create, but because they usually seek to protect their predatory rule by expanding it to the countries around them.
Trump is implicitly forced to acknowledge this fact. Consider his cases against North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela. His well-deserved denunciations of these regimes all end up taking account of their internal policies. North Korea, he says, “is responsible for the starvation deaths of millions of North Koreans, and for the imprisonment, torture, killing, and oppression of countless more.” On Iran, “Iran’s people are what their leaders fear the most. This is what causes the regime to restrict Internet access, tear down satellite dishes, shoot unarmed student protestors, and imprison political reformers. Oppressive regimes cannot endure forever.” Or in a marvelous passage, Trump explains:
The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented. From the Soviet Union to Cuba to Venezuela, wherever true socialism or communism has been adopted, it has delivered anguish and devastation and failure. Those who preach the tenets of these discredited ideologies only contribute to the continued suffering of the people who live under these cruel systems.
But if national sovereignty is the central principle of international relations, isn’t this sort of thing their own business? Why is it a concern of ours? In effect, Trump is required to acknowledge that it is the oppressive nature of the governments of these countries that makes them a threat to others. So in the case of Venezuela, he ends up saying that America’s goal and that of its allies “is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy.”
That’s why this speech reads more like an attempt to synthesize two different approaches to foreign policy: a lot of the rhetoric of nationalist realpolitik, along with a lot of the substance of the Bush-era freedom agenda.
But there is one area, one glaring blind spot, where we can see the substantive impact of Trump’s nationalist leanings. If sovereignty is the key principle of international relations, there is one country that has recently committed gross violations of another nation’s sovereignty: attempting to rig its elections and then seizing part of its territory and supporting a vicious, ongoing insurgency in its eastern provinces. This is what Russia has been doing to Ukraine since 2014. Yet Russia gets no mention in Trump’s litany of complaints about the world, and Ukraine gets only a vague, passing mention about “threats” to sovereignty.
I don’t think you need to engage in any speculation to see why Trump gives Russia a pass. His sympathy for Putin and his outlook has long been clear, based on a similar conception of national sovereignty. Putin, too, is the sort of leader who would talk about a nation’s culture and interests as the basis for its sovereignty—and omit liberty and political freedom.
There has been a drumbeat on the right for a long time to the effect that US foreign policy should be based strictly on a narrow interpretation of our interests and should drop all this stuff about promoting freedom in the world. This speech is a move in that direction.
A hybridized George W. Trump foreign policy forged between the president and his top advisors will probably be better in many respects than the not-so-benign neglect practiced by the last president. But we can also see the incoherence and the blind spots that such a compromise creates—and the risk that what remains of America’s role as a standard-bearer for freedom in the world will be ignored by an unenthusiastic commander-in-chief.