Trump’s Idea of World Order Endangers the Human Future
TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 15 Oct 2018
This is an interview with Daniel Falcone that was published in slightly modified form in Counterpunch on October 4, 2018.
Question: What are your general thoughts on Trump’s recent UN talk and how world opinion received it?
A: The Trump speech at the UN this year was a virtual mirror image of Trump’s overall political profile, slightly embellished by some idealistic sentiments of an abstract and vague character, and if the content is analyzed, revealing glaring tensions between the banal abstractions and the concrete lines of policy being advocated by the American president. However, if Trump’s remarks are compared with his first speech to the General Assembly a year earlier, except for the warmongering toward Iran, it was less belligerent, and a bit more ingratiating to other members and to the UN as an organization, yet essentially unchanged so far as its essential features affirming nationalist policy, values, and prescriptions are concerned. It was a speech that not only subscribed to the premises of a state-centric world order, but celebrated sovereignty as the best and only reliable foundation for security on a global level.
A central theme articulated by Trump throughout the speech and strongly stressed at the beginning and end was the primacy of a sovereignty-centered world order based on territorial nation-states. This amounts to a strong affirmation of Westphalian ideas of world order as these have evolved in Europe since the middle of the 17thcentury. The essential tone of the speech was awkwardly encapsulated in this pithy statement: “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism.” Throughout the speech this notion of patriotism was kept obscure unless thought of as an emotional attachment to sovereign rights that reinforced its rational claim to loyalty of individuals.
It is far from clear what is meant by ‘the ideology of globalism,’ although it can be inferred from other formulations in the text, and elsewhere, that for Trump it means rejecting any policy prescription that puts the wellbeing of the region or world ahead of the interests of individual sovereign states. Trump leaves no doubt about this: “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered. And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.” Quite a lot of history is overlooked in this sweeping generalization, although its descriptive weight may depend on how ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ are understood. At least with regard to ‘peace’ empires have done better for longer time intervals than have sovereign states.
The emotive embodiment of such a state-centric worldview is conveyed by Trump’s stress, unusual in statements by leaders at the UN, on ‘the doctrine of partriotism.’ Again, the meaning is clear even if the words chosen are rather odd, even out of place. There is no doctrine of patriotism in either the annals of diplomacy or in scholarly writing lying about waiting to be explained. A claim of patriotism is normally associated with expressions of overriding, sometime blind, loyalty to a particular national political community, especially in relation to war and ideology. Patriotism is also invoked to justify the sacrifices made by citizens, even unto life itself, and to explain the bestowal of unconditional support to one’s own country in situations of international conflict or ideological conflict. In the Cold War period it was a common slogan among anti-Communist self-proclaimed patriots to shout at ideological critics of capitalism or national policy: “America, love it or leave it.”
Against such a background, Trump’s next moves in his address to this UN audience is exactly what we have come to expect from him. First, he puts America forward as a model nation that demonstrates to the world what achievements can be had with respect to constitutional stability and prosperity, giving other states a blueprint to mimic if they seek the best possible future for their respective societies. And secondly, insisting that America will respect the sovereignty of others and cooperate for mutual benefits, but only on the basis of reciprocity and as measured by what the U.S. government deems as fair, which Trump insisted would require several drastic course corrections within and without the UN. Trump in his now familiar framing contends that the U.S. has in the past borne a disproportionate share of financial burdens at the UN, and elsewhere in its international relationship, but vows that this pattern will not be allowed to continue in the future. Whether in trade relations or foreign economic assistance, the United States will demand not only good balance sheet results as assessed by a transactional logic, but shows of political support in international venues from those governments that are beneficiaries of American largesse.
Where Trump tramples on normal diplomatic decorum, so much so that his comments provoke derisive laughter from the assembled delegates, occurs when he boasts so grossly about the accomplishments of his presidency. “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any other administration in the history of our country.” To give more tangible grounds for this extraordinary moment of self-congratulation with representatives of the governments of the entire world sitting in front of him, Trump claims “America’s economy is booming as never before.” To substantiate such a boast Trump points to the record highs of the stock market and historic lows for unemployment, especially for minorities. He also points to counterterrorism successes in Syria and Afghanistan, and to border security in relation to illegal migration.
Maybe most distressing in the context of telling this global audience about how well the United States is doing under his leadership is Trump’s unabashed embrace of militarism as if it is a sign of the virtuous character of the United States. He speaks with pride, rather than shame, of record spending of $700 billion for the military budget, to be increased in the following year to $716 billion. Such expenditures are announced with no felt need for a security justification beyond the bald assertion “[o]ur military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been.” There is no explanation given for why such gigantic sums are needed or how they will be used.
Trump gives here an unintended hint of a globalist element. He resorts to the familiar trope that “[w]e are standing up for America and for the American people. And we are also standing up for the world.” In other words, American militarism is a win/win proposition for all nations, provided, of course, that they are not identified as enemies to be sanctioned and destabilized from within and without.
The UN was affirmed by Trump so long as it operated according to this template based on the interaction of sovereign states that were dedicated above all to maximizing the benefits of international cooperation for their own national societies. Two caveats along the way qualified this endorsement of sovereign rights.
First, respect for the sovereign rights of others does not apply to ideological and geopolitical adversaries of the United States and its allies. Hence, sanctions against Cuba and Venezuela, regimes which were singled out to express Trump’s view that socialism inevitably produces misery are justified as such states deserve no respect for their sovereignty. This ideological provincialism, which hearkens back to the worst of hawkish ideologues during the Cold War Era, is coupled with the vitriolic repudiation of the sovereign rights of Iran, which is blamed for exporting terrorism throughout the Middle East and ruling its own people with an iron fist. What follows is not a statement of grudging respect for the sovereignty of such miscreant states, but escalating sanctions, and harsh threats of confrontation and destabilization.
Secondly, Trump claims, with reference to the UN, that the U.S. has in the past borne an unfair share of UN expenses, and as with trade and other international arrangements, argues that this must stop. In the Trump future cooperation will only be possible if this situation is corrected, while at the same time making sure that the Organization behaves in ways that correspond with the wishes of its largest financial contributor. Trump singled out the UN Human Rights Council [HRC] and the International Criminal Court [ICC] for fierce condemnation, alleging that such institutions fall far below his criteria of acceptable behavior. Trump refers to the embarrassment associated with the fact that the elected membership of the HRC includes governments with terrible human rights records, one of his few observations that has merit. For the ICC no words of rejection are strong enough for Trump, but he chooses the following language to make his point: “As far as America is concerned, the ICC has no jurisdiction, no legitimacy, and no authority.. We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureau.” Such sentiments amount to the death knell of all prospects for a global rule of law if American geopolitical leverage is sufficiently strong.
I was also struck by what Trump left unsaid in his speech. There was no reference to his supposed ‘deal of the century’ with its pledge to deliver an enduring peace to Israel and Palestine. I can only wonder whether the evident content of the approach being long prepared by the White House seems so politically unacceptable that it has either been shelved or is in the process of being repackaged. Although it is probably foolish to speculate, the Kushner/Greenblatt/Friedman plan according to what is known, involved an unpalatable mixture of ‘economic peace’ incentives for the Palestinians with some sort of arrangement to transfer Gaza to the governmental authority of Jordan and Egypt. In effect, this strikes me as a pseudo-diplomatic version of the ‘Victory Caucus’ promoted so vigorously by Daniel Pipes and the Middle East Forum, but for the sake of appearances made by the Kushner group to seem as if a new peace process. For Pipes, the road to peace is based on the prior renunciation of Palestinian political aspirations coupled with the acknowledgement both that Israel is the state of the Jewish people and that international diplomacy had been tried within the Oslo framework for more than 20 years, and failed.
The Trump approach appears to want a similar outcome to that put forward by Pipes, but seeks to reach such a diplomatic finishing line by creating in advance a set of political conditions favorable to Israel and offering a different set of inducements to the Palestinians if they will kneel down politically. This approach had been signaled by adopting the Israeli line on Jerusalem, settlements, refugees, UNRWA, and Gaza, yet in UN venues Trump uses uncharacteristically cautious language, expressing only the faintest hope that some kind of solution will mysteriously issue forth: “The United States is committed to a future of peace and stability in the region, including peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. That aim is advanced, not harmed, by acknowledging the obvious facts.” Among the most ‘obvious facts’ is the provocative announcement of the intention to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem last December.
Perhaps, the most notable change from Trump’s remarks of the prior year is his praise of Kim Jung-un for taking denuclearizing steps. The prior year Kim was insultingly called ‘the rocket man’ and his government demeaned as a ‘depraved regime.’ This year Trump seemed to be suggesting, and even thanking neighboring countries for their support, that there exists, thanks of course to Washinton’s bold diplomacy, the best chance ever that a peaceful transition will occur, leading to a unified Korea devoid of any threat of a war on the peninsula fought with nuclear weaponry.
Not surprisingly, also, there was not a word mentioned in Trump’s lengthy speech about climate change, or the need for enhanced lawmaking treaties to solve global challenges. Trump’s implicit message is that the UN should not try to do more than provide meeting places for geopolitical leaders to address the peoples of the world while enjoying what the great city of New York has to offer by way of restaurants and culture. In this view the real role of the UN is to give geopolitical actors a convenient venue to pursue their foreign policy ambitions, but to step aside when it comes to prescriptions for behavior in accord with international law, or even its own Charter.
To give an inevitable Orwellian spin to a speech that at several points lauds democratic forms of governance as the only legitimate way to structure state/society relations, Trump singles out four countries with notably autocratic leaders for positive recognition near the close of his remarks: India, Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Poland in that order. If we ask ‘what do these otherwise dissimilar states have in common’? The answer is certainly not democracy, as none are ‘democatic’ in any satisfactory sense. Periodic elections are not enough. The obvious answer to the question is ‘having autocratic leadership.’ Perhaps an even more instructive answer is ‘they all have favorable relations with Trump’s America.’ This is certainly not due to their democratic credentials. Indians refer to Modi as ‘our Trump,’ Saudi Arabia is as repressive and atrocity-prone as any state on earth, Israel maintains an apartheid state to keep Palestinians under oppressive control while it establishes an exclusivist Jewish state in what was not so long ago a non-Jewish society, and Poland is harsh toward refugees and generally repressive toward dissent.
Apart from Netanyahu and other authoritarian leaders, there was little in Trump’s speech that would appeal to foreign leaders, other than perhaps his show of selective respect for the sovereign rights of other states, which was incidentally the only applause line of the entire speech. It was essentially a speech telling the world that it had taken Trump only two years to make America great again. And if other states seek greatness, their leaders should follow along by relying on the Trump’s simple formula: abandon globalism, choose patriotism. Such an empty, anachronistic message was properly unheeded by those who quietly stayed in their seats throughout the speech except for the delegates from countries where Trumpism already controlled the government.
Q: Can you talk about how Trump manages to be such an effective politician at his rallies yet fails to parlay this to successful UN addresses?
A: At his rallies, Trump performs as a fiery demagogue to the delight of his populist base drawn from right-wing America. His audience consists mainly of white working class supporters who have reason to feel enraged and victimized by the regressive internationalism of the American political establishment, whether Democratic or Republican. Despite his wealth Trump successfully projects an anti-establishment posture that has even managed to captured the Republican internationalist mainstream, partly by promoting economic nationalism, and has effectively neutralized the neoliberal internationalism of Wall Street by claiming credit for the stock market rise while tearing down the pillars of the liberal global order so carefully constructed by bankers and corporate giants ever since 1945.
This demagogic appeal is furthered bolstered by promising a robust sovereignty-oriented nationalism in which the rights and interests of Americans will be given the highest priorities, illegals deported, Muslims kept out, and dog whistles of approval given to white supremism. Trump promises that these policies will be embodied in economic arrangements that are capable of keeping jobs in America, employment low, and encouraging capital investment to stay at home to reap tax benefits and windfall profits to entrepreneurs by way of environmental deregulation and the weakening of social protection for the poor and homeless.
Such an abandonment of internationalism in rhetoric and policy is rather displeasing to most other countries, including the Atlantic coalition that had been the mainstay of American foreign policy until Trump came along. The Trump engagement with the world is backed up by blunt forms of militarism, and pledges to back up its threats with missiles if resistance is met, and ultimately playing the role of geopolitical bully at the UN and elsewhere. This is a departure from the avowals of American leaders since World War II to provide enlightened global leadership that is beneficial to the whole world, which can fairly be described as a brand of globalism with the military instrument present but used sparingly, although still excessively.
Q: Trump might feed his base by disrespecting the international community but at some point this is not sustainable correct?
A: So far Trump has not paid a high price for ignoring global challenges such as climate change, nuclearism, famine, global migration, refugee flows, and global inequalities, but days of reckoning will come, and when they do the costs of his version of militant nationalism will be extremely high, and likely unmanageable without bringing chaos and catastrophe. In this basic sense, the reaffirmation of nationalism as the only acceptable political model for this century is a way of fiddling madly while the planet bursts into devastating flames. Trump’s repudiation of the Paris Climate Change Agreement and Iran Nuclear Program Agreement, as well as his denunciation of the International Criminal Court and the Human Rights Council are normative retreats from the fledgling efforts to construct a world community based on the rule of law and respect for human dignity.
Q: Trump continues to shock and frighten the world regarding Cuba and Iran with antiquated threats of sanctions and continued hostility. Furthermore, Trump has no method to the madness re: China and Canada in terms of trade. Can you discuss theses matters respectively and how we we’ve become a laughing stock on a world stage?
A: Instead of being a laughing stock, it is more realistic to view Trump’s America as bringing tears to the eyes of those who care about present human suffering and future prospects for peace, human rights, global justice, economic stability and equity, and ecological sustainability. What we need is an equitable globalismthat is dedicated to safeguarding and promotinghuman interests. What we don’t need is a militarized patriotism that builds walls of exclusion and criminalizes socialist governments while turning a blind eye to bloody autocrats and coal emissions, which seems to be the rough guidelines shaping Trump’s language, and most of his policies. It is not a good time for those who seek the present and future wellbeing of the human species and co-evolutionary relations with the surrounding natural environment. In contrast, citizen pilgrims seeking a world community, are dedicated to a peaceful transitions to an ecologically sensitive and equitable planetary civilization that incorporates empathy as a core value.
Richard Falk is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, an international relations scholar, professor emeritus of international law at Princeton University, author, co-author or editor of 40 books, and a speaker and activist on world affairs. In 2008, the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) appointed Falk to a six-year term as a United Nations Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” Since 2002 he has lived in Santa Barbara, California, and taught at the local campus of the University of California in Global and International Studies, and since 2005 chaired the Board of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. His most recent book is Achieving Human Rights (2009).
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