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Trumpism and the Sovereignty Paradox

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Word Cloud of Trump’s 2018 UN Speech

Believe it or not, it wasn’t that long ago that Trump issued his “sovereignty and patriotism” speech at the United Nations. I expect most readers remember it primarily for the spectacle of world leaders laughing at Trump’s claim to have made America great again, but it did have other content.

In the speech, Trump used some variation on the word “sovereignty” ten times. Early on, he articulated a vision of world politics as a multicultural community composed of essentially distinctive nation-states. It was very nineteenth century.

Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history, and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition, and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth.

That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control, and domination.

I honor the right of every nation in this room to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions. The United States will not tell you how to live or work or worship.

We only ask that you honor our sovereignty in return.

In the American domestic context, it is no small matter to treat American national identity as equivalent to that of every other country in the world. It suggests a more ethnic than civic conception of the nation, where a person cannot simply become “American” by adopting the values associated with citizenship. Instead Americanness depends on “ties of memory” and “tradition.”

This is particularly jarring in the context of a large federation, where regions and localities often have cultures quite distinctive from one another. I always find this passage from Neil Gaimon’s American Gods on point:

Wednesday glared at him. Then he said, “It’s not. San Francisco isn’t in the same country as Lakeside anymore than New Orleans is in the same country as New York or Miami is in the same country as Minneapolis.”
“Is that so?” said Shadow, mildly.
“Indeed it is. They may share certain cultural signifiers-money, a federal government, entertainment-it’s the same land, obviously-but the only things that give it the illusion of being one country are the greenback, The Tonight Show, and McDonald’s.”

However, given my line of work, the aspect of the speech that I find most interesting—and problematic—concerns state sovereignty. It fuses Bannon- and Miller-style anti-globalism with Bolton’s general distaste for international institutions. Thus, Trump bashes the International Criminal Court (ICC):

The ICC claims near-universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country, violating all principles of justice, fairness, and due process. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy.

He continues:

America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.

Around the world, responsible nations must defend against threats to sovereignty not just from global governance, but also from other, new forms of coercion and domination.

How far does Trump’s embrace of the sovereign right of nation-states to decide their own fate free from the meddling of international institutions and other governments?

Not very far, it turns out. Here’s Trump on Syria:

The ongoing tragedy in Syria is heartbreaking. Our shared goals must be the de-escalation of military conflict, along with a political solution that honors the will of the Syrian people. In this vein, we urge the United Nations-led peace process be reinvigorated. But, rest assured, the United States will respond if chemical weapons are deployed by the Assad regime.

Trump’s embrace of sovereignty ‘for me but not for thee’ goes even further. He spends a good portion of his speech attacking Iran for violating the sovereignty of other countries, and specifically calls out Iran for its role in Syria:

Every solution to the humanitarian crisis in Syria must also include a strategy to address the brutal regime that has fueled and financed it: the corrupt dictatorship in Iran.

Iran’s leaders sow chaos, death, and destruction. They do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations. Instead, Iran’s leaders plunder the nation’s resources to enrich themselves and to spread mayhem across the Middle East and far beyond.

Now, everyone here knows that I have no time for Assad apologists, especially among self-proclaimed members of the progressive left. But one does not need to hold a favorable view of Assad to admit that Iran’s involvement in Syria comes with Damascus’s express consent. Iran is not violating Syrian sovereignty, the United States is.

We can always dismiss this kind of thing as typical Trumpian incoherence. Nonetheless, Trump is not the only American to hold the United States to different standards than, well, pretty much everyone else when it comes to respect for sovereignty. Remember when John Kerry, apparently forgetting entirely about the 2003 American-led invasion of Iraq, condemned the Russian invasion of Ukraine on the grounds that “You just don’t in the 21st century behave in 19th century fashion by invading another country on completely trumped up pre-text”?

What’s at stake here is a deeper problem. To loosely paraphrase Stephen Krasner, there’s a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the practice of state sovereignty. Sovereign states recognize no higher authority to regulate their behavior. State sovereignty also implies that one state cannot interfere in the domestic politics of another state. In a world marked by power-political competition, these two principles will invariably clash with one another. Respect for the sovereignty of other states requires a government to limit its own sovereign autonomy when it comes securing its national interests. Many governments won’t be willing to do so when push comes to shove; thus, the exercise of their own sovereign prerogatives entails undermining other states’ sovereignty.

This tension need not overly concern powerful states, who can (more or less) preserve their own sovereignty. But it matters a great deal to weaker states, whose enjoyment of de facto sovereignty rights depends on the disposition of the great powers. It is no accident that, for all its violations, national sovereignty has fared better in the post-war period than it did in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Robust international institutions, somewhat paradoxically, enhance sovereignty by limiting sovereignty. They create constraints—however attenuated or outright evaded—on the ability of powerful states to violate the sovereignty of weaker ones. Moreover, they allow—even if in a threadbare sense—something like generalized consent among states when it comes to the rules and norms that govern violations of sovereignty. As Paul Musgrave and I have argued elsewhere:

Empires, even if in mutated form, persist for a basic reason: an uneven distribution of power and governance will always characterize world politics. This uneven distribution ensures the persistence of forces that push and pull imperial formation. In one way or another, postwar international liberalism has struggled with a resulting dilemma: how to ensure the fulfillment of imperial functions—such as the provision of public order and the maintenance of a rule-based order—while rejecting the legitimacy of empire. Its solution, by and large, has been to “democratize” imperial functions. It vests them in multilateral international organizations and otherwise attempts to ensure that they, as much as possible, reflect the consent of the abstraction that is the “international community.”

The world sought by Trump and Bolton is not really one of sovereignty. It is one of unfettered great-power prerogative to violate the sovereignty of other states.

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