The Logic Hole at the Center of Trump’s U.N. Speech
The central theme destroyed its singular policy message.
It was not a very good speech.
It was not a very good speech.
Such presidential United Nations General Assembly speeches rarely are. It is hard to conjure a theme. But this was a jangly speech about America’s view of the world that said hardly anything about Europe, China, India, Russia, Brazil, Mexico, or the non-Venezuela parts of South America.
It was a speech about the righteous many standing up to the evil few — but not just about that. The speech did have one theme — one pair of cymbals that the percussionist-in-chief clanged again and again. At least 16 times, by my count. The magic word was “sovereignty.” Sometimes just “sovereign.”
If the president hits a term 16 times in one speech, I guess the speechwriters really, really want the listeners to notice it. The sovereignty two-by-four with which the president kept hitting us over the head means that national governments, within their borders, are totally in charge. They get to do whatever they want, without meddlesome interference from, for example, what the president called “unaccountable international tribunals and powerful global bureaucracies.”
This is the logic hole. The bad guys are mainly in trouble for trying to build nuclear weapons and also for doing dastardly things to their own people — for example, North Korea, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba. Granted, Iran is also meddling in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. But, gosh, who isn’t?
Sorry, but a country cannot (logically) both be a sovereignty absolutist and a high-minded enforcer of international norms regarding what other countries are doing inside their own territories. (Exhibit A: The foreign policy of sovereignty absolutist China, which in this matter is at least fairly consistent.)
And while we are on the subject of China, the only line in the speech that referred indirectly to China was this one: “We must reject threats to sovereignty — from the Ukraine to the South China Sea.”
Since China claims that virtually the entire South China Sea is its sovereign territory, the Chinese government on a daily basis echoes this statement.
Think about it for a moment (which is more than the speechwriters did): If the United States government wanted to disagree with China’s sovereignty claim, it would have to invoke sovereignty’s enemy number one: “international law,” including the Law of the Sea treaty and the ruling of the “international tribunal” that recently applied that treaty to the South China Sea. The U.S. Senate has not ratified that treaty, and the current administration has ignored it, because — you guessed it — the treaty threatens our sovereignty!
But back to the big logic hole. A country whose leader stresses “sovereignty” with practically every breath will find it hard to denounce any evil except international aggression. Little of what the president attacked amounted to that.
On North Korea, the president actually seemed to straddle both positions. He promised to “destroy” North Korea if it committed aggression, then said, “denuclearization is its only acceptable future.” Specifically, building nuclear weapons inside one’s borders is a sovereign right, unless international norms (enforced by both other countries and “powerful global bureaucracies”) have a right to intrude. And if they have a right to intrude on sovereign rights in order to sustain that norm — uh oh.
This is a logic hole so big that any country can drive a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile launcher through it. The speech’s one theme, reiterated at every turn, slams the speech’s one policy message.
Photo credit: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images
Philip Zelikow holds professorships in history and governance at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. He also worked on international policy as a U.S. government official in five administrations.
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