Reaganesque? Not Quite.
On Tuesday, September 19, 2017 US President Donald Trump gave his first speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations. President Trump’s supporters were effusive in their praise while his opponents denounced it as “bombastic”, an “abdication of values”. Hillary Clinton described it as “very dark” and “dangerous”. Venezuela’s clueless foreign minister thought he was insulting Trump by comparing him to Ronald Reagan (he wasn’t).
In his speech, President Trump defined “America First” as “renewing this founding principle of sovereignty. Our government's first duty is to its people, to our citizens -- to serve their needs, to ensure their safety, to preserve their rights, and to defend their values.” He went on to say, “I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first.”
President Trump went on to say, “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition. But making a better life for our people also requires us to work together in close harmony and unity to create a more safe and peaceful future for all people.”
The Wall Street Journal thought that President Trump’s foreign policy based on sovereignty was too narrowly construed. The president had said, “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 rights of every other sovereign nation.” The Editorial Board of the Wall Street Journal felt that other countries should respect the rights of their citizens. But many countries have a different view of what the rights of their citizens are. Over fifty Islamic and majority Muslim countries have signed the Cairo Declaration on Human Rights in Islam rather than the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human rights (which apparently aren’t so universal). The Soviet Union (now Russia) refused to sign. China signed, but it was the Republic of China (Taiwan) that signed – not the Peoples Republic of China.
When I heard President Trump describing sovereign nations acting in their own interests and in the interests of their citizens, I thought of Adam Smith and how human beings interacted with each other. In the Wealth of Nations he wrote, “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” That is the beauty of the free market economic system as described by Smith. As long as the butcher, the brewer and the baker operate within the rule of law we do not care what their motives are or even if they are nice people and treat their mothers well.
That sounds similar to the foreign policy announced by President Trump where we don’t care if other nations have different forms of government (as in dictatorships) or whether they trample the human rights of their citizens (presumably for their own good). But the analogy only goes so far. In Smith’s village (Kirkcaldy) the butcher, the brewer and the baker operate within the rule of law because they are required to do so. If they adulterate their products people will shun their offerings. If they cheat their customers they can be arrested by the constable. If their products harm their customers they can be sued in court for damages. Their motives are irrelevant but their actions are not. There are consequences for their bad actions.
The problem with the Trump foreign policy based on national sovereignty and interests is that there are no consequences for bad actions unless they directly affect a country’s citizens. Each country defends its rights and its citizens and everyone else has to look out for themselves. Our enlightened world ruled by law as envisioned by John Locke is in danger of becoming a Hobbesian state of nature where life is “nasty, brutish and short.”
For seventy years since the end of the Second World War, the United States has been the enforcer of the world’s rule of law. Without an enforcer the rule of law breaks down. I have lived in countries where the rule of law is weak and have seen first hand the impunity of corrupt officials, the oppression of crooked police and the sullenness of the dispirited people.
Who will be the enforcer of the global rule of law under President Trump’s America First policy? Don’t say the United Nations. The United Nations has no armed forces. When it intervenes it uses the armed forces of its member nations. This can be helpful in minor skirmishes such as during the civil war in Liberia but have been of limited value in the Congo and South Sudan. And the UN cannot be an enforcer of a global rule of law when two non-signatories of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights have the power to veto any action the UN takes.
Since the United Nations accepts all nations and all cultures as members, the UN is essentially valueless. Some of the worst human rights violators are members of the UN’s Human Rights Council including Russia, China, Venezuela and Cuba. The UN not only has little ability to enforce a global rule of law, as an institution it has no true concept of what that law should be.
For better or worse, the United States has been the enforcer of the global rule of law for seventy years. Of course, it is an American vision of the rule of law made up of a network of global institutions that reinforce this vision and which is backed up by American military power. Some regimes think this is insufferable meddling much like how street gangs think of beat cops. But the citizens of the neighborhood respect and applaud the cops for their protective presence.
The cost of acting as the world’s cop and the enforcer of the rule of law is high both in terms of the lives of our troops and the wealth that we must spend. And President Trump is right that friends and allies should do more to help bear this burden but when push comes to shove if other nations fall short in supporting the rule of law then we must step forward. This is not a situation where, if we are unhappy, we can take our ball and go home. It is true that the cost of acting as the enforcer of the rule of law is high but the cost of having no enforcer would be unbearable.
In his speech President Trump also said, “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph. When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.” He went on to lambaste North Korea (a direct threat to the US), Iran (an indirect threat) and Venezuela (not a threat). But the question is: what if it boils down to the righteous few? There are many in the UN that oppose us and more that wouldn’t do anything to help us.
But President Trump’s words were confusing and contradictory. Are we looking out only for ourselves or are we going to root out the wicked (whether they be few or many)? Deception and confusion may be good tactics in a poker game or when negotiating a business deal but not so much when you are leader of the free world. People need to know that your words mean something and that your actions back up your words. Even President Trump’s White House staff can’t explain what he is doing and thinking. How are the American people going to understand? How are foreign leaders who have never read The Art of the Deal (and some with their fingers on nuclear triggers) going to react?
Our friends and allies need and deserve more than just the occasional military strike or economic sanction, they need to know that they (and the rest of the world) have the commitment of the United States to honor and enforce, if necessary, the global rule of law. It is this commitment that assures our friends and warns our enemies. Without such a commitment, President Trump is tempting the malevolent actors on the world stage to test America’s resolve. It is an invitation to chaos and destruction.