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Trump’s UN speech was a statement of conservative principles? That doesn’t make sense

It’s only “state sovereignty” when we do it.

President Donald Trump addressing the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York on Tuesday.
REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

After listening to the current incumbent president of the United States deliver his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week, I dashed off a hasty, hot-blooded reaction in which I said that Mr. Trump had “embarrassed himself and the United States with an arrogant rant at the United Nations that all but asserted the sole power of the U.S. president to decide which nations are naughty and which are nice, which will be bombed or otherwise attacked and which governments need to be overthrown.”

Now that I’ve calmed down, I don’t feel inclined to take any of it back. But I do feel inclined to describe calmly what I meant, and will take as my text not only Mr. Trump’s speech but also a Washington Post column by Marc Thiessen in praise of the speech and headlined: “Why the left hated Trump’s U.N. speech.” The Post summarized Thiessen’s argument, thus:

“Trump’s U.N. speech promoted classic conservative ideas; no wonder the left hated it.”

I’m going to argue that Thiessen’s column engaged in willful, intentional, self-imposed blindness. I’ve linked to the full thing above and again here, so please feel free to decide for yourself whether I’m doing the same (engaging in willful self-blindness).

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(And here’s the full text of Trump’s U.N. remarks, via Politico.)

Thiessen says that liberals hated the speech because “Trump laid out a clear conservative vision for vigorous American global leadership based on the principle of state sovereignty.” He said the criticisms of the speech amounted to “the standard liberal critique of conservative internationalism.”

State sovereignty

Trump likewise talked about “state sovereignty,” a lot at the U.N.

“State sovereignty” was one of the three “beautiful pillars” on which Trump said his view of a better world depended, or so the teleprompter apparently said in one of those relatively rare occasions when Trump stuck to what his speechwriters had prepared. But I have no clear idea what  “state sovereignty” means to either Trump or Thiessen, unless it means the opposite of state sovereignty.

I fear it means the sovereignty of the United States over all other states.

Let’s go right to the heart of the matter. Eight nations now have nuclear weapons, not counting North Korea, which is in the process of getting them. Trump doesn’t want North Korea to build a deliverable nuclear weapon. (Neither do I.)

Efforts to discourage North Korea from proceeding down this path have been – to use a mild term for it – unavailing. North Korea was formerly a signatory to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, but it withdrew from that pact in 2003, which (sorry to have to tell you this) it had a legal right to do and apparently followed the legal requirements for so doing.

Except in Bizarro World, the principle of “state sovereignty” seems to mean that any state has the sovereign right to do what it wants within its own borders, especially if it doesn’t violate international law.

Again, I very much wish and hope that North Korea can be persuaded to give up its nuclear weapons ambitions. But the idea that they have no right to go down this path because the United States doesn’t like it, is pretty much the opposite of “state sovereignty,” unless the secret meaning of the term is United States sovereignty over all other states (or least over the ones run by bad hombres, as Trump might define the term, as long as he got to decide which hombres were bad).

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‘Conservative internationalism’

Thiessen’s other big concept was “conservative internationalism.” What the heck?

Could you put those two words together in a way that would make them mean that the United States has the right to do things that it apparently has no legal right to do?

I guess you can. I found this four-year-old National Review piece, headlined “Conservative Internationalism” that purports to define the term in ways that strike me as neither “conservative” nor “internationalism.” It turns out to mean that the United States, if it’s really smart and careful, can apply pressure to bad guys around the world to get them to do what Washington wants them to do, without immediately going to military force (although the threat of force is key to making it work, and you have to be able and willing to use force if “conservative internationalism” doesn’t bring the bad guys to heel.)

It takes a lot of fancy high-stepping to get “state sovereignty” and “conservative internationalism” to mean what Trump and Thiessen might want them to mean. “State sovereignty” is particularly Orwellian, because it means roughly the opposite of what it ought to mean. Turns out, apparently, one state (ours) has all the sovereignty.

In the case of Kim Jong-Un and North Korea, at least you have a weird, perhaps deranged, actual dictator — with no legitimate claim to power from the point of view of democratic theory — holding absolute power and acting in ways that look pretty deranged to an outside observer.

The United States, which sees itself as the captain of Team Democracy in the world (except when it finds it necessary to overthrow elected governments who are behaving improperly and replace them with unelected governments) is always more comfortable overthrowing dictators. And plenty of dictators were included in Trump’s denunciamentos at the United Nations. But he was hardly consistent, which Thiessen managed to overlook. Thiessen’s paragraph celebrating freedom and democracy was highly selective and ahistorical. He wrote:

Trump also put himself squarely on the side of morality in foreign policy and explicitly stood with those seeking freedom around the world. He promised to support the “enduring dream of the Cuban people to live in freedom.” He declared that “oppressive regimes cannot endure forever;” he upbraided the Iranian regime for masking “a corrupt dictatorship behind the false guise of a democracy” while promising to stand with “the good people of Iran [who] want change.” He took on Iran’s ally, “the criminal regime of Bashar al-Assad” in Syria, whose “use of chemical weapons against his own citizens, even innocent children, shock the conscience of every decent person.”

And his best moment came when he turned to what he called the “socialist dictatorship of Nicolás Maduro,” declaring that “the problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.” [I gather that was intended to be a big put-down of socialism. —EB] Trump promised to help the Venezuelan people “regain their freedom, recover their country and restore their democracy.”

I’m no fan of Maduro. But he came to power through elections. And the “Democracy Index” of the Economist Intelligence Unit gives Maduro’s government a middle score between Democracy and authoritarianism.

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But neither Trump nor Thiessen showed any interest in democracy in Saudi Arabia, which would make any list of the least democratic nations on earth, where bloggers can be publicly flogged for disrespectful blogging.

The United States has often overthrown democracies and in several instances replaced them with friendlier dictatorships or monarchies.

So, to end where I perhaps should have started: In my previous first reaction to Trump’s speech to the United Nations, I mocked Trump for the tried and true use of the word “regimes” to describe those governments that the United States would like to see disappear. It’s code for “too illegitimate to be called a “government.” Although those who get the “regime” treatment are often undemocratic, what unifies the “regime” category is not their legitimacy so much as their unfriendliness to U.S. interests and hegemony.