President Donald Trump’s address to the 2017 United Nations General Assembly included some tough talk about the United Nations itself, particularly the way it deals with member nations that abuse human rights.
Central to this discussion is the tension between respect for national sovereignty and the protection of human rights. Stated simply, it is difficult to compel governments to respect freedom and democracy while simultaneously calling for their sovereign independence to be fully respected.
Trump addressed this dilemma by beginning with a defense of national independence, which was a strong element of his own campaign for the U.S. presidency.
“This institution was founded in the aftermath of two world wars, to help shape this better future,” he told the U.N. General Assembly. “It was based on the vision that diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security, and promote their prosperity.”
Trump referred to sovereignty, prosperity, and security as the “three beautiful pillars of peace.” He said that the post-World War II Marshall Plan that rebuilt Europe was based on “the noble idea that the whole world is safer when nations are strong, independent, and free.”
“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government, but we do expect to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation,” Trump declared.
“Strong sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side-by-side on the basis of mutual respect,” he argued. “Strong sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destinies. And strong sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God.”
“In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch,” he said, praising the ideals embodied in the U.S. Constitution.
“In America, the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign,” Trump explained. “I was elected not to take power, but to give power to the American people where it belongs. In foreign affairs, we are 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.”
“As President of the United States, I will always put America first—just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said. “All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens, and the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.”
Trump went on to explain that America’s national interest clearly includes helping the rest of the world to achieve sovereignty, prosperity, and security. He said the commitment of the United States to a peaceful world, stretching back for generations, is beyond question.
“Our citizens have paid the ultimate price to defend our freedom and the freedom of many nations represented in this great hall. America’s devotion is measured on the battlefields where our young men and women have fought and sacrificed alongside of our allies: from the beaches of Europe, to the deserts of the Middle East, to the jungles of Asia,” he reminded the General Assembly. “It is an eternal credit to the American character that even after we and our allies emerged victorious from the bloodiest war in history, we did not seek territorial expansion, or attempt to oppose and impose our way of life on others.”
“We must reject threats to sovereignty, from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” Trump declared, naming two hot spots that immediately put him at odds with the global agendas of Russia and China. “We must uphold respect for law, respect for borders, and respect for culture, and the peaceful engagement these allow.”
“The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based. They respect neither their own citizens nor the sovereign rights of their countries,” said the president, beginning his transition from the alpha of respect for national sovereignty and independence to the omega of dealing with outlaw nations.
“If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few, then evil will triumph,” he warned. “When decent people and nations become bystanders to history, the forces of destruction only gather power and strength.”
After detailing the offenses of rogue regimes such as North Korea and Iran, Trump delivered his critique of the United Nations and its handling of threats to world security and human rights, beginning with thanks to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres for “recognizing that the United Nations must reform, if it is to be an effective partner in confronting threats to sovereignty, security, and prosperity.”
“Too often, the focus of this organization has not been on results, but on bureaucracy and process,” Trump said.
“In some cases, states that seek to subvert this institution’s noble aims have hijacked the very systems that are supposed to advance them,” he said. “For example, it is a massive source of embarrassment to the United Nations that some governments with egregious human rights records sit on the U.N. Human Rights Council.”
“The United States is one out of 193 countries in the United Nations, and yet we pay 22 percent of the entire budget and more,” Trump pointed out. “In fact, we pay far more than anybody realizes. The United States bears an unfair cost burden—but, to be fair, if it could actually accomplish all of its stated goals, especially the goal of peace, this investment would easily be well worth it.”
“Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact, are going to hell. But the powerful people in this room, under the guidance and auspices of the United Nations, can solve many of these vicious and complex problems. The American people hope that one day soon, the United Nations can be a much more accountable and effective advocate for human dignity and freedom around the world,” he said.
“In the meantime, we believe that no nation should have to bear a disproportionate share of the burden, militarily or financially,” he continued. “Nations of the world must take a greater role in promoting secure and prosperous societies in their own regions.”
“America stands with every person living under a brutal regime. Our respect for sovereignty is also a call to action. All people deserve a government that cares for their safety, their interests, and their well-being, including their prosperity,” Trump stated, drawing his themes of sovereignty and responsibility together in what might be seen as an effort to separate ruling regimes from the people they dominate.
Trump seemed with this passage to be rejecting the notion that Bashar Assad and his henchmen are sovereign Syria, or the theocracy in Tehran is Iran. This would be an approach quite different from the usual United Nations internationalist philosophy, which tends to equate respect for sovereignty with recognizing the legitimacy of the brutal regimes Trump denounced.
The president reinforced this point by hitting a few more times on the notion that legitimate governments take responsibility for the well-being of the people they represent, respecting certain inherent duties to the full body of their citizens. This could be the first step toward a working test of legitimacy for governments, since the ugly dictatorships of the world are noted for either completely disdaining the well-being of their people, or brutally oppressing certain portions of their populations.
“If this organization is to have any hope of successfully confronting the challenges before us, it will depend, as President Truman said some 70 years ago, on the independent strength of its members,” Trump stressed.
“If we are to embrace the opportunities of the future and overcome the present dangers together, there can be no substitute for strong sovereign and independent nations. Nations that are rooted in their histories and invested and their destinies. Nations that seek allies to befriend, not enemies to conquer. And most important of all, nations that are home to patriots, to men and women who are willing to sacrifice for their countries, their fellow citizens, and for all that is best in the human spirit,” he said.