On September 18, 2017, President Donald Trump addressed the UN General Assembly for the first time. His speech was intended to promote a new departure in American foreign policy, a “principled realism” which would put “America First,” whose cornerstone was sovereignty. It was probably the first speech by Trump that the media took seriously. They viewed it in a balanced manner and they interrogated the president’s use of sovereignty. The president used the term twenty-one times. He identified sovereignty with the right of nations to privilege their interests and determine their own affairs, pure and simple. This new emphasis was intended to confront the supposedly less “muscular” foreign policy of his predecessor, President Barack Obama. The shift privileges unilateral over multilateral action, coercion over diplomacy, arbitrary determination of the American national interest over international cooperation, and a crude and traditional “power politics” over human rights. To understand Trump’s speech and why it’s so dangerous, we need to look at the history of sovereignty.
Friends and Enemies
Sovereignty and raison d’etat emerged after the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the Thirty Years War (1455–1487), and a host of other wars in between. Sick of the bloodshed, wary of religious absolutism, the secular sovereign was seen as, above all, seeking stability. This meant countering the hegemonic aspirations of any state by decentralizing international power, forging favorable alliances (even with rivals), and remaining watchful of new states entering (and possibly changing) the existing constellation of political forces. The concept developed in concert with a new appreciation of the “balance of power,” the principles underpinning international law, and the extension of formal reciprocity to other sovereign states in choosing their government and religion.
In this system, policies that call for unqualified isolationism — which could result in an erosion of leverage — are as dangerous as those justifying impulsive intervention in the affairs of other states. There is a sense in which the two play off one another. Feelings that the state is alone, disrespected, and under siege heightens the appeal of paranoia and xenophobia, unpredictable policy choices, and the likelihood of war. Distinctions between “friend” and “enemy” blur and change so rapidly that purely instrumental considerations come into play. Any state can appear as an “enemy” or “friend” at any time not merely in principle but in fact. Strategy dissolves into tactics; the consequence is an inability to formulate any coherent or consistent policy. This is precisely the situation in which the United States now finds itself: sovereignty has been stripped of its connection with the balance of power, reciprocal recognition of other states, respect for international law, and — perhaps above all — stability.
President Trump has noted again and again, implicitly and explicitly, that the United States stands isolated and that it has squandered any possibility of exercising its power. The result has been a self-fulfilling prophecy. American distrust of the world community has produced an increasing distrust of the United States thereby fueling paranoia and xenophobia along with a spate of arbitrary decisions in terms of foreign policy. Ties with traditional allies have been weakened while (half-hidden) collaboration with authoritarian and reactionary regimes like Russia and Saudi Arabia is taken for granted; prospects of military/nuclear attack now exist on two fronts, Iran and North Korea; and the ability to influence world events has decreased following American withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accords, the International Labor Organization, and UNESCO. Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL), it is worth noting, called for taking the next logical step by sponsoring the American Sovereignty Restoration Act of 2017, demanding that the president withdraw from the United Nations. That this and other transnational organizations presuppose participation by sovereign states is apparently immaterial.
American “sovereignty” has been used as a pretext to threaten Venezuela, heighten military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, unleash a nuclear arms race in Southeast Asia, and decertify (due to supposed non-compliance) the nuclear treaty with Iran. Arbitrary and self-serving interpretations of sovereignty have intensified the image of the United States as a bully. Imperialist ambitions remain embedded in the Monroe Doctrine and yet another intervention in Latin America would undoubtedly produce a nationalist backlash. Afghanistan has been subject to an abjectly disastrous American intervention for the last fifteen years and deployment of new forces still lacks either a sovereign domestic ally or an exit strategy. As for South and North Korea, they will pay the price in the event of an American attack on Kim Jong-un’s regime; that the South Korean government has tended to support a more measured strategy and a diplomatic solution to the crisis seems immaterial. Fake news diminishing the threat to American security is apparently why all co-signers of the US-Iran treaty believe that Tehran has complied with its terms – and why they will not renegotiate. Abandoning the treaty will further isolate the United States; strengthen Iran’s position within the world community; and leave the United States with an untenable set of policy choices. It can eliminate the constraints imposed on Iranian nuclear policy thereby bringing about the very result that Trump wishes to prevent; generate calls for new sanctions thereby pushing Iran closer to Russia and China; and, meanwhile, foster the justifications and prospects for unilateral military action by the United States.
Self-fulling prophecies are compounded by an embrace of the double standard. Threats to the sovereignty of other states come only from America’s enemies not from its friends. The double standard, so notable in Trump’s UN speech, comes down to this: America (or an arbitrarily chosen ally) can do what it wishes, when it wishes, and by whatever means it wishes while its arbitrarily chosen rivals cannot. Such is the supposedly new meaning of sovereignty. The media and the academy has been remiss in debating how the sovereign exercises power, the character of popular sovereignty versus its authoritarian variant, and what defines the sovereign in the first place.
The president calls his new doctrine “principled realism,” but in an increasingly global society that has been unable to deal with new extremist reactions, and which contains nearly 650 million stateless refugees, it is neither principled nor realistic. Trump’s speech bypassed the real challenges to sovereignty, especially for more vulnerable nations than the United States.
It is not Iran or North Korea which poses existential threats to sovereignty, but the increasing centralization of global wealth and the growing political power of economic elites. New cyber technologies are crossing national boundaries and interfering with elections and activities once identified with the sovereign state. Cyber-destruction of nuclear sites and infrastructure ranging from water to hospitals is already undermining the vague national “responsibility to protect” citizens that was introduced by the United Nations to prevent genocide and, if necessary, justify intervention (primarily in the non-western world). External attacks on popular sovereignty are complemented by authoritarian domestic movements, which in turn have spread xenophobia, intolerance, and racism throughout the world. The question today is whether meaningful understandings of sovereignty can co-exist with cosmopolitan attitudes, liberal ideals, and new forms of institutional accountability. That is what any future critical inquiry into sovereignty and the sovereign should bring to light.