In Tuesday’s speech to the UN General Assembly, President Trump made it as clear as he ever has how he views America’s place and purpose in the world.
His speech lashed out at all the familiar foes, but Trump’s main target was the international order itself.
Trump warned the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries that the United States may no longer help defend its member nations if they do not lower their oil prices. He said foreign aid should be based not on compassion or need but on what is offered in return. He boasted of his withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal, his tough immigration policies and his trade war with China.
The president also spoke with disdain about international organizations, including the World Trade Organization (“in dire need of change”), the UN Human Rights Council (“a grave embarrassment to this institution”) and the International Criminal Court (“no jurisdiction, no legitimacy and no authority”).
Trump crowed about how he has advanced the agenda that he calls America First. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he declared.
But this extremely self-interested form of nationalism also represents a stark repudiation of American exceptionalism. That is the ideal of a “shining city on a hill” Ronald Reagan borrowed from John Winthrop, and the belief — expressed by nearly 60 percent of Americans in a 2010 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution — that “God has granted America a special role in human history.”
Trump has a dark vision of an America that is under siege by the rest of the world, not one that is leading the way for it.
And in his speech before the United Nations, he also suggested that no country lays any particular claim to being exemplary in its values or its responsibilities.
“Each of us here today is the emissary of a distinct culture, a rich history and a people bound together by ties of memory, tradition and the values that make our homelands like nowhere else on Earth,” the president said. “Many countries are pursuing their own unique visions, building their own hopeful futures and chasing their own wonderful dreams of destiny, of legacy and of a home.”
It was not so long ago that Republicans lambasted Barack Obama for supposedly voicing a similar view of the world, when he was asked during his first overseas trip as president in 2009 whether he subscribed to a school of American exceptionalism that sees this country as uniquely qualified to lead the world.
“I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism,” Obama said.
The difference, of course, is that Obama was arguing for more engagement with the rest of the world, while Trump believes that countries should work together only when their interests are in sync.
One danger in rejecting globalism is that others will not. While Trump’s tactics may provide some short-term leverage, the countries he pushes around will start exploring their other options. China in particular stands ready to move into the vacuum that is being left as the United States withdraws from the international order.
Even some of the examples that Trump chose to cite in his speech cast doubt on its premise. “There is India, a free society, over a billion people, successfully lifting countless millions out of poverty and into the middle class,” he said. But is there a better argument than India for the benefits that can be reaped from globalism?
“Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured or peace has ever prospered,” Trump said. “And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.”
America built much of the international order that Trump now seeks to turn the nation’s back on. We can only hope that it is strong, resilient and vital enough to go on, even if this country is no longer the one leading the way.