On Tuesday, Donald J. Trump gave his first speech as U.S. president at the United Nations General Assembly (USGA). While my colleague at The American Conservative, Daniel Larison, rightfully argues that it “was alarming to hear Trump speak in such stark, fanatical terms about international affairs,” especially in regards to states such as North Korea, Iran, and Venezuela, there was also a grain of truth in Trump’s speech as well.
Trump’s underlying foreign policy instinct is sound when he articulates what should be common-sense: There is no one-sized-shoe-that-fits-all political or social system among diverse countries, allies or otherwise. Trump said:
“We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions or even systems of government…But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.”
Expounding on the theme of sovereignty, Trump continued:
“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. Strong sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny….In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.”
Although this very sentiment was contradicted by Trump’s threats to take action against North Korea and other states, it reflects the best sentiments of American foreign policy thinking before it was overtaken by the twin fallacies of liberal internationalism and neoconservatism. As John Quincy Adams said in 1821, the United States should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” Instead, the United States should only be “the champion and vindicator only of her own.”
Undoubtedly, it is disturbing to witness egregious violations of human rights, especially in brutal states such as North Korea. But, this is not a license for the United States to reshape the world, nor spread liberal democracy around the globe. Not only does such a strategy backfire and work against global security interests—for example, Western intervention in Libya has to lead to an ongoing civil-war there, as well as the destabilization of neighboring Mali—such a strategy also fails to take into account the genuine diversity of cultures and social systems throughout the world.
Simply put, many states and populations throughout the world eschew Western style-democracy, and certainly don’t want a homogenous global political culture. Sovereignty is thus the best mechanism by which a state can safeguard its distinctive political and social system, whatever it may be. States are always free to emulate aspects of other states. There is nothing wrong with cultural exchange and cosmopolitanism—but within the confines of the voluntary cooperation of peoples, and not as part of a grand project to reshape cultures and nations.
Trump’s threats to violate the sovereignty of several nations arbitrarily deemed “rogue” was perhaps the most disappointing aspect of his speech. While pointed out that, “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,” does that not beg the question: are not the leaders of Iran and North Korea putting their countries first? Strangely, however, most of the U.S. media criticism of Trump’s speech revolved around his alleged walk-back from universal values, which supposedly, in the eyes of many, ought to be promoted over everything else, including the interests of states, as realism would dictate. As Newsweek wrote, Trump’s statement about not imposing the American way of live on anyone “must surely be comforting to the communist regime in Beijing, to African dictatorships and to Middle Eastern countries that deny rights to women.”
Yet, the American attempt to impose a new liberal global order based on liberal democracy after the Cold War is in fact, unraveling now partly due to the backlash against universalism, and the fact that people in Afghanistan simply do not want to live like people in Sweden, from a cultural perspective. Such a perspective is not to poke at Western liberalism, but to critique its hubristic claim of being universal.
The United States (and liberal internationalists in other countries) must ask themselves: has the global crusade to spread Western political values taken on an almost religious imperative? Is the spread of liberal democracy now so important, that it ought to be pursued even when it leads to negative outcomes in global security? Is it so imperative, that is it worth the risk of backlash from other cultures? The knee-jerk reaction of the foreign policy establishment in the United States is to constantly weigh in on every issue, anywhere in the world. Is it really relevant to American interests if there were a coup in Malawi tomorrow? Mark me—the United States would feel compelled to issue a statement and impose light sanctions at the very least. It is not realism to declare that every event everywhere in world is critical to U.S. security interests. By doing so, threats that did not previously exist instead materialize, as was the case in Syria, where by backing rebels against Bashar al-Assad, the United States created the conditions for the Islamic State.
As Trump said, countries must respect the interests of their own people. The Chinese government has determined, for example, that the best interests of its people are served by a one-party system that allows for long-term development and strategizing, something that would be more difficult to accomplish in an electoral democracy. Other countries, like Singapore and the United Arab Emirates, have opted for a model that approaches liberal autocracy—the rule of law is respected, but there are restrictions on determining how the ruler is chosen. And countries like Saudi Arabia and Iran put what they see are eternal, immutable religious values above the liberal conception of human rights.
In a way, all of these countries are looking out for the interests of their people, or believe to be doing so, in their own ways. This is not to argue that anything goes, however. As the classically liberal philosopher Isaiah Berlin pointed out, it is entirely possible to have a universal conception of human rights without the homogenization of the world’s political and cultural systems, because all cultures have conceptions of justice and morality:
I came to the conclusion that there is a plurality of ideals, as there is a plurality of cultures and of temperaments. I am not a relativist; I do not say “I like my coffee with milk and you like it without; I am in favor of kindness and you prefer concentration camps” — each of us with his own values, which cannot be overcome or integrated. This I believe to be false. But I do believe that there is a plurality of values which men can and do seek, and that these values differ. There is not an infinity of them: the number of human values, of values that I can pursue while maintaining my human semblance, my human character, is finite — let us say 74, or perhaps 122, or 26, but finite, whatever it may be. And the difference it makes is that if a man pursues one of these values, I, who do not, am able to understand why he pursues it or what it would be like, in his circumstances, for me to be induced to pursue it. Hence the possibility of human understanding.
If the United States can accept that it does not necessarily need to shape the entire world in its image, while using its position as a great power as an exemplar, then that would go a long way to actually creating the conditions for the nations of the world to work together and pursue their goals without the constant fear of regime change and pressure to change their values. Ultimately, this enhances U.S. security because it makes other countries less hostile to it, and creates empathy on the basis of all countries pursuing their interests.
Akhilesh Pillalamarri is an editorial assistant at The American Conservative. He also writes for The National Interest and The Diplomat.