On September 25, 2018, President Trump delivered his second address to the United Nations General Assembly. The speech was highly anticipated in light of President Trump’s often skeptical view of international institutions and multilateral cooperation, as well as recent tensions over U.S.-China trade, the future of the Iran nuclear deal and talks with North Korea, rhetorical spars with U.S. allies in Europe and elsewhere, and more.
“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared this week in his second UN General Assembly speech on September 25th. “America is governed by Americans.”
“We reject globalism and embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” Trump said in a clear rejection of the half-century old international institutions that emerged from the devastation of World War II. It was a declaration of the supremacy of sovereignty, and the idea that all nations should embrace their own versions of his “America First” foreign policy approach.
Trump was hardly the first U.S. president to make the point. George H. W. Bush put it positively in his 1991 address to the General Assembly, seeing international institutions as an asset in service of an international order “in which no nation must surrender one iota of its own sovereignty.” George W. Bush had a UN ambassador—John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser—famous for his fierce defense of sovereignty.
Trump’s speech went around the globe reprimanding ungrateful allies, lambasting so called bad trade deals and criticizing other agreements that enabled the world to take advantage of America. “The U.S. will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination,” he said, defending his Administration’s retreat from U.N. organizations like the International Criminal Court, Human Rights Council and a global compact on migration.
Two weeks earlier, when John Bolton announced that Washington would “use any means necessary” to push back against the International Criminal Court, the body mandated by most of the international community to prosecute genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It was initially intended to act as a “court of last resort,” to step in when nations’ legal systems fail. To Bolton, and now Trump, the court is a challenge to its constitutional authority.
In another shake-up from longstanding U.S. policy, and one that appeals to Bolton, Trump said his Administration intends to take a “hard look” at U.S. foreign assistance, particularly to nations that don’t act in U.S. interests. “Moving forward, we are only going to give foreign aid to those who respect us and, frankly, are our friends,” he said. “And we expect other countries to pay their fair share for the cost of their defense.”
Trump believes that international collaboration has resulted in the U.S. being swindled. For decades, he said, the United States opened its economy with few conditions, allowing foreign goods from all over the world to flow freely across U.S. borders. Other countries did not grant that same access.
“We will no longer allow our workers to be victimized, our companies to be cheated and our wealth to be plundered and transferred,” Trump said, detailing his rationale to slap China with another $200 billion in import tariffs with a promise to implement more, should Beijing retaliate. “The United States will not be taken advantage of any longer.”
Western allies have not embraced the message of sovereignty, which has traditionally been pushed by states like Russia, China, Iran and North Korea as a self-defense tactic. U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, called on the international community to come together to help repair the broken trust. “Our future rests on solidarity,” he said. “We must reinvigorate our multilateral project.”