The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s ‘principled realism’ is an incoherent mess

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Most of the major headlines about President Trump's speech Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly hinged on his bombshell threat to “totally destroy” North Korea. Trump declared that the “Rocket Man” — a.k.a. North Korean despot Kim Jon Un — was “on a suicide mission.” He raged at “loser terrorists” and the “murderous regime” in Iran, and startlingly suggested that parts of the world “are going to hell.”

“The speech was animated by a bellicosity and swagger that is unusual for the world body but has become a standard part of Trump’s approach at home,” wrote my colleagues. “He said that if the United States was compelled to defend itself or its allies that it would obliterate North Korea, a policy articulated by earlier administrations, albeit not in such Strangelovian terms.”

But beyond Trump's now all-too-predictable bluster, there was a pronounced incoherence. Trump may have bombastically railed against a select group of enemies abroad and denounced the scourge of socialism, but his speech was not quite that of your typical Republican hawk. The “America first” president returned to consistent themes from his earlier foreign policy speeches, harping on the preeminence of national “sovereignty” — the word, as well as “sovereign,” appeared 21 times in his remarks — and his desire to take care of his own people rather than worry about the rest of the world.

“In America, we do not seek to oppose or impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch,” Trump said.

He also attempted to play the pragmatist: “We want harmony and friendship, not conflict and strife. We are guided by outcomes, not ideologies. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goal, interests, and values.”

With “principled realism,” Trump was repeating a line he voiced in Saudi Arabia this year. That speech was penned by White House adviser Stephen Miller, a virulently anti-immigrant Svengali who has kept his post despite the departure of other prominent nationalist Trump advisers. Miller's fingerprints were all over Tuesday's speech, with Trump conjuring a vision of a new world order where “strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect.” How this sentiment can sit alongside Trump's threats to various countries is anyone's guess.

“Having spent the first part of his speech preaching a non-judgmental, non-interventionist foreign policy, Trump then upended that message by vowing to intervene against Iran and North Korea,” wrote neoconservative analyst Max Boot. “Coherence has never been his strong suit.”

The irony is that Trump's international agenda is neither principled nor pragmatic, and has always been guided by ideology first. Both Trump and Miller care chiefly about the narrow domestic base that catapulted Trump to power. So, in the most august chamber of international diplomacy, Trump stuck to his ultranationalist guns, extolling the “nation-state” as “the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” while saying little about democracy, human rights and the rule of law elsewhere. Trump raised the issue of refugees only to insist that they remain close to the lands from which they fled. The crisis facing the Rohinyga of Burma — the subject of now-fitful European and Asian diplomatic efforts — went wholly unaddressed.

In that sense, he sounded more like the leader of countries such as Russia and China than an American president. Both the Chinese and Russian presidents skipped out on the U.N. session this week, but have in the past spoken at length about the primacy of national sovereignty in international relations — often as veiled jabs against a moralizing and meddling United States.

“Sovereignty is not a point prior American presidents have pressed. When global leaders invoke sovereignty, they usually mean that no one possesses the right to oppose what they unleash within their borders,” noted national security reporter Spencer Ackerman. “American presidents typically tailor their speeches at the UN to counterbalance a due respect for national sovereignty with calls for collective action against genocide, terrorism, disease, poverty, and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.”

Instead, Trump offered a one-sentence condemnation of Russian and Chinese aggression in Ukraine and the South China Sea, respectively, but did not mention the nations by name. There was also another conspicuous omission.

“Why, if Trump was going to take such a strong stance for sovereignty, did he neglect to mention the most aggressive attack on U.S. sovereignty — specifically, our ability to conduct free and fair elections — that has taken place in recent years, or the attacker, Russia?” asked David Rothkopf in The Washington Post. “On this, the big tough guy was strangely silent.”

The other concern raised by Trump's fire and brimstone speech is that it may backfire. While almost everyone in the international community recognizes the ultimate need for dialogue with Pyongyang, Trump may be shrinking the room for diplomacy by seeking to unravel the nuclear deal with Iran.

“The North Koreans are obviously watching carefully to see how Iran is treated and what could be expected were they ever to be in a position to give up their nuclear weapons,” said Stewart Patrick of the Council on Foreign Relations in a phone call with journalists. “That makes it particularly imperative that the president … be able to provide credible evidence based on technical assessments that Iran is actually cheating on this.” So far, there’s little sign that the Trump administration has that evidence.

Following Trump’s speech, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered what seemed to be a rebuttal. “If we denounce the accord, do we better manage nuclear proliferation?” Macron asked, referring to the Iran deal. “I don’t think so.”

He then seemed to suggest Trump’s nationalism was an anachronism in the 21st century. “Our challenges are global, and more than ever we need multilateralism,” Macron said. “Walls don’t protect us; what protects us is our joint willingness to change history. We are all linked.”

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