Trump's nationalist vision: Does it promote or endanger peace?

The president, addressing the United Nations General Assembly Tuesday, laid out a nationalist basis for international interaction and lashed out at a group of 'rogue nations' led by North Korea and Iran.

Seth Wenig/AP
US President Trump sits after speaking during the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Sept. 19, 2017.

President Trump used his first appearance before world leaders assembled at the United Nations’ annual opening session Tuesday to offer a vision for international cooperation that was part red meat, part kumbaya.

On the philosophical side, the “America First” president laid out a nationalist basis for international interaction, saying that national sovereignty and not multilateralism should be the foundation for international efforts to address the world’s pressing issues.  

“I was elected to give power to the American people where it belongs,” Mr. Trump said, adding, “just like you, the leaders of your countries, will always, and should always, put the citizens of your countries first.”

Yet Trump’s full-throated praise of national sovereignty left no room to recognize that it was national sovereignty run amok that resulted in the global ashes from which the United Nations and an unprecedented era of multilateral cooperation arose seven decades ago.

And then came the red meat.

Trump lashed out at a group of “rogue nations” led by North Korea and Iran that he said were using their national sovereignty to spread violence and challenge international security. And he called on other nations to join the United States to stop these “wicked few” who are threatening world peace.

In the stark terms that thrill his domestic political base but which only rarely echo in the UN’S green-marbled diplomatic hall, Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea if it proceeds with its nuclear and ballistic missile programs. And he vowed to take on the “murderous regime” in Tehran that “masks a corrupt dictatorship.”

Sounding more like candidate Trump than the American president, Trump belittled the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, describing him as a “rocket man on a suicide mission.”

Trump had harsh words as well for the Iran nuclear deal, labeling it an “embarrassment” and “one of the worst and most one-sided transactions the United States has ever entered into.”

With such unequivocal language, the president seemed to be putting the world body on notice that the US will soon put Iran back on the international center stage, where it was before the nuclear deal was concluded in 2015.

'Deeply philosophical' or throwback to past?

While Trump’s harsh words for North Korea and Iran were largely reiterations of existing positions, it was the theme of national sovereignty that offered what sounded like an earnest effort to explain a leadership approach that jarred the world.

A senior White House official speaking Monday on condition of anonymity portrayed Trump’s speech as “in essence explaining how the principle of ‘America First’ is not only consistent with the goal of international cooperation, but a rational basis for every country to engage in cooperation.”

The official described the speech as a “deeply philosophical address” reflecting a worldview the president has been developing “for decades.”

But for some longtime analysts of international relations, Trump’s emphasis on national sovereignty sounded like a chilling throwback to an era of unbridled nationalist ambitions fueling conflict.

“There was a core contradiction at the heart of this speech, and it was this: If each individual nation puts itself before all others and pursues a hard nationalistic sovereignty, then the cooperation that Trump called for will be unattainable,” says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.

If anything, a reaffirmation of national sovereignty might end up a boon to the very dictators Trump condemned by name in his speech – including Syria’s Bashar al-Assad and Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro – by reinforcing the argument that other nations should stay out of their internal affairs.

'Great reawakening of nations'

But perhaps even more alarming than the implicit contradiction in the speech is the danger it carries for the world of rekindled nationalism, says Dr. Kupchan.

“We heard the president praise a ‘great reawakening of nations’ – but that’s a recipe for going back to dark days in history when it was each country for itself – and when that hard nationalism led to centuries of war,” he says.

Trump was followed a few speeches later by French President Emmanuel Macron, whom many are seeing this year as the West’s standard-bearer against Trump’s vision of nationalism and rejection of postwar multilateralism.

Mr. Macron lauded the Paris climate accord from which the US has announced it is withdrawing, and other senior French officials in New York have insisted there is no alternative to the Iran nuclear deal, which they highlight as an example of international diplomacy averting war.

Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council as special adviser on Europe in the Obama second term, says Europeans understand better than many others the dangers in deconstructing the international order that followed World War II.

“The Europeans know that it was hard nationalistic sovereignty that fed a zero-sum competition that resulted in conflict, but they also know that it was the international order – an order for which Americans have expended tremendous blood and treasure since Pearl Harbor – that allowed them to escape centuries of bloodshed.”

Interpreting Trump’s speech as “taking a wrecking ball to that order,” Kupchan says, “It’s hard to see why anyone would want to do that.”

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