President Donald Trump began his address to the United Nations last week with some of the boilerplate braggadocio that forms the basis of his rallies. The audience laughed. And, not surprisingly, this became the main story for most news networks and headline writers. That’s too bad, because no matter what you think of the president, it was a more serious speech than that.
Nearly all addresses to the U.N. by world leaders are primarily for domestic consumption, because all world leaders, whether elected or not, are politicians. So while Trump’s boasts about his domestic accomplishments went further than what is usually expected, his chief sin wasn’t that he pandered to voters but that he didn’t do a better job of concealing it.
The core argument in Trump’s address was that the nation-state is the indispensable unit of the world order. “We reject the ideology of globalism and accept the doctrine of patriotism,” the president declared.
“Each of us here today,” he stated, “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. That is why America will always choose independence and cooperation over global governance, control and domination.”
At times Trump’s depiction of globalism was a bit of a straw man. Cooperation with and participation in international institutions — NATO, NAFTA, the IMF, the World Bank and even the U.N. — are not examples of “global governance.” The United States took a lead role in creating these institutions not to outsource our sovereignty to some world government but to extend our influence and magnify our leadership around the world.
But the Trump administration has a good case that some of these institutions are in dire need of reform. Trump was right to reaffirm the administration’s decision to pull out of the U.N. Human Rights Council, which, like its predecessor, became captured by many of the world’s worst human rights abusers. (Full disclosure: My wife works for U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley — and I think they’ve both done a great job.)
At the same time, much of what the president had to say was undoubtedly music to the ears of many of those nations.
Nationalism, which Trump’s speechwriters called “the doctrine of patriotism,” is a lot like individualism. Everyone — liberals and conservatives alike — embraces individualism in the abstract because it implies the notion that people are responsible for their own actions and should be free from unjust coercion. But liberals and conservatives typically have very different ideas about what individualism means in practice. One need only look at debates over the Obamacare mandate, free speech, wedding cake bakers, etc., to understand that.
Similarly, everyone agrees in the abstract that nation-states should be “free” to do what is in their own interest and what is valued by their own cultures. But at times we have fierce disagreements about how that theory is put into practice. Just as Jeffrey Dahmer and Charles Manson were individualists following their own path, states such as North Korea and Iran are acting on their own interpretation of “sovereignty” and “patriotism.”
Every culture is indeed unique, and every custom is rooted in tradition and history. But that does not mean all customs (or policies) are equally worthy of respect or deference. Many nations have traditions of slavery, cruelty to women and unchecked authoritarianism. No one should forgive such things in the name of celebrating cultural diversity. That doesn’t mean it’s the obligation of the U.S. to crush these customs at gunpoint. But we are obliged to at least bear witness to evil and to do what we can to not lend aid and comfort to such things, even rhetorically.
Nor, as the leader of the free world, should we pretend that just because every nation-state is sovereign as a matter of international law that the people of every unfree nation chose to live under despots and dictatorships.
Trump was right when he said, “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered.” But we should not confuse necessity and sufficiency. Sovereign and independent nations have also been among the leading vehicles of barbarism and tyranny. And that’s why countries such as North Korea, China, Russia and Iran were so happy to hear the leader of the free world champion the “doctrine of patriotism” instead of the doctrine of liberty.
Jonah Goldberg is an editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.