In his maiden speech to the United Nations General Assembly, President Donald Trump invoked the terms “sovereign” and “sovereignty” 21 times. In a manner unimaginable coming from any other recent occupant of the White House, the President committed the United States to the principle of national sovereignty and to the truth that “the nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition.” More, Trump rightly pointed out that these pertain not just to the US and the safeguarding of American sovereignty but to all countries:
“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.”
Then he took it all back.
Listening to the president, one would almost think Trump was giving two different speeches, one rhetorical and one substantive. The rhetorical speech (reportedly authored by Stephen Miller) was the most stirring advocacy one could hope for of the rule of law and of the Westphalian principle of the sovereign state as the bedrock of the international order. The substantive speech, no doubt written by someone on the National Security Council staff, abrogates the very same Westphalian principle with the unlimited prerogatives of the planet’s one government that reserves the right to violate or abolish the sovereignty of any other country – or to destroy that country altogether – for any reason political elites in Washington decide.
Numerous commentators immediately rushed to declare that Trump had dialed back to George W. Bush’s 2002 “Axis of Evil” speech. (The phrase is attributed to then-speechwriter David Frum, now a moving figure behind the “Committee to Investigate Russia,” which in the sage opinion of Rob Reiner and Morgan Freeman claims “we are at war” with Russia already.) Trump has now laid down what amounts to declarations of war against both North Korea and Iran. On both he has left himself very little room for maneuver, or for any compromise that would be regarded as weakness or Obama-style “leading from behind.” While hostilities against both countries may not be imminent (though in the case of North Korea, they might be) we are, barring unforeseen circumstances, now approaching the point of no return.
With respect to North Korea, some people assume that because the consequences would be patently catastrophic the “military option” must be off the table and that all this war talk is just bluster. That assumption is dead wrong. The once unthinkable is not only thinkable, it is increasingly probable. As Trump said: “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” This is exactly backwards. Threatening North Korea with total destruction doesn’t equate to the defense of the US (forget about our faux allies South Korea and Japan, which contribute nothing to our security), it positively increases the danger to our country and people. The Deep State would rather risk the lives of almost 30,000 American military personnel in Korea, of hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of South Koreans, and of even more millions in North Korea – not to mention prodding Pyongyang to accelerate acquisition of a capability for a nuclear strike on the United States itself – than pry its grip off of a single square meter of our forward base against China on the northeast Asian mainland.
With respect to Iran, the relevant passages of Trump’s speech could as well have been drafted in the Israeli and Saudi foreign ministries – and perhaps they were. Paradoxically, such favoritism toward some countries and hatred for others is the exact opposite of the America First! principle on which Trump won the presidency. As stated in his Farewell Address by our first and greatest president (wait – are we still allowed to say that? George Washington was a slave-owner!), a country that allows itself to be steered not by its own interests but the interests of others negates it own freedom and becomes a slave to its foreign affections and antipathies:
“The nation which indulges toward another an habitual hatred or an habitual fondness is in some degree a slave. It is a slave to its animosity or to its affection, either of which is sufficient to lead it astray from its duty and its interest. Antipathy in one nation against another disposes each more readily to offer insult and injury, to lay hold of slight causes of umbrage, and to be haughty and intractable when accidental or trifling occasions of dispute occur.”
Not to belabor the obvious, at least as far as foreign policy goes, the would-be Swamp-drainer has lost and the Swamp has won. We can speculate as to why. Some say Trump was always a liar and conman and had no intention of keeping his promises. (Let’s see what he does on the “Dreamers” and throwing away his wall on the Mexican border. As Ann Coulter says, “If Trump doesn’t get that wall built, and fast, his base will be done with him and feed him to Robert Mueller.”) Others say Trump meant what he said during the campaign but now surrounded by generals and globalists that dominate his administration, and with populists in the White House now about as common as passenger pigeons, he’s a virtual captive. If so, it’s a captivity of his own making.
To be fair, Trump’s populism was never based on consistent non-interventionism. In 2016 he promised more money for the Pentagon and vowed to be the most “militaristic” president ever. Still, he seemed to understand that wars of choice unrelated to vital national interests, like Bush’s in Iraq and Obama’s in Libya, were a waste of untold billions of dollars and produced only disasters.
His acceptance of the Swamp’s continuation of the war in Afghanistan was his first major stumble towards the dismal path of his predecessors. War against North Korea or Iran, or God forbid both, would wreck his presidency and his pledge to “Make America Great Again!” even more surely than Iraq ruined Bush’s.
Still unanswered: does Trump know that, does he care, and does he have the wherewithal to do anything about it? At the moment, it doesn’t look good.