My old friend Ronald Radosh, writing in the Daily Beast about President Trump’s recent United Nations speech, notes, “There was a critical word tucked into Donald Trump’s U.N. speech . . . that word is sovereignty and we should all understand what the president means when he invokes it.”
I agree, let us understand what he means.
What is sovereignty? I wrote a 450-page book on the subject but in the end it all comes down to two words: who decides? Who decides a nation’s tax policy, foreign policy, trade policy, immigration policy? Will it be the people in the nation themselves or supranational global institutions?
A year ago, President Trump told the U.N. General Assembly, “In America the people govern, the people rule, and the people are sovereign.” Abraham Lincoln defined sovereignty as “a political authority without a political superior.” American leaders who have valued our own sovereignty have also valued the sovereignty of our friends and allies. Thus, Ronald Reagan in his inaugural address declared:
bq(blockquote). To those neighbors and allies who share our freedom. . . . We will match loyalty with loyalty. We will strive for mutually beneficial relations. We will not use our friendship to impose on their sovereignty, for our own sovereignty is not for sale.
Like Lincoln and Reagan, Trump defends sovereignty—that is, independent self-government—as a positive principle. Radosh tells us that Trump’s version of sovereignty might sound “very nice,” but it “has darker consequences.” It is the “promotion of isolationism and nationalism.” Let us take these two points one at a time.
Far from any hint of isolationism, Trump’s 2018 U.N. speech literally bristled with a robust internationalism. In paragraph after paragraph, the president cited current examples of, and future proposals for, international cooperation. He praised President Ban Ki-moon and heralded “the successful completion” of a “brand new” trade deal with South Korea. He gave a “special thanks” to Japanese President Shinzo Abe of Japan, as well as South Korea’s Ban for facilitating the difficult negotiations with North Korea. While also thanking China’s President Xi Jinping for assisting in this process, Trump did not hesitate to condemn dishonest Chinese trade practices. The president lauded Jordan and Egypt and declared that the United States would work with the Gulf Cooperation Council to “advance prosperity, stability, and security” in the Middle East.
He congratulated India, a “free society of over a billion people, successfully lifting countless millions out of poverty;” the Polish people for supporting the construction of a Baltic pipeline and “standing up for their independence, their security, and their sovereignty;” and Israel “celebrating its 70th anniversary as a thriving democracy in the Holy Land.”
As American statesmen from Alexander Hamilton through Henry Clay, Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Calvin Coolidge, and Reagan have done, he has called for fair and reciprocal trade policies with other nations (emphasis on the reciprocal). While, at the same time, like his patriotic predecessors, he is willing to use tariffs when it is in the interests of American workers, the American middle class, and our manufacturing base, to do so.
What we are seeing in Trump’s policy is not “isolationism,” but classical internationalism. The prefix “inter” in the compound term inter-nationalism signifies relations “between” nations. As anyone familiar with U.N. documents or the writings of international relations professors, or the analysts at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) would be well aware—and as Radosh should know—the concept of “globalism” differs from internationalism. Globalism implies not traditional internationalism, but a transnational or supranational dimension beyond or above the nation-state.
This is certainly the case with the International Criminal Court (ICC) which in its enabling Rome Statute asserts authority over nation-states (including democratic ones) that have not consented to the authority of this global court.
Radosh writes, “For this reason (loss of American sovereignty) he [Trump] and John Bolton favor pulling the United States out the International Criminal Court, which Trump says, ‘claims near universal jurisdiction over the citizens of every country.’” Radosh would be more credible if he bothered to get his facts right, by say, typing in a simple Google search of “International Criminal Court” and looking at its membership list. It takes about a minute. Ron, the United States cannot “pull out” of the ICC because we have never been in it. The Senate never ratified the Rome Statute.
What John Bolton announced last month was that the Trump administration was no longer going to assist the ICC (by providing intelligence, documents, etc.) as the Bush and Obama administrations have done in the past. The reason for this change in foreign policy is that the ICC Prosecutor for the first time is proposing to investigate American soldiers and officials for alleged “war crimes” in Afghanistan. Interestingly, when she was secretary of state, Radosh’s preferred 2016 presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton, told an audience in Nairobi that it was a “great regret” that the United States was not a member of the International Criminal Court.
Let us now take up the issue of “nationalism.” Here, it depends upon what one means by nationalism. During the 20th century, statesmen as disparate as Winston Churchill, Mahatma Gandhi, David Ben Gurion, Charles de Gaulle, Ronald Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher were called nationalists and they clearly were democratic nationalists, which is often used interchangeably with the concept of patriotism. Hence, in contemporary world politics, Benjamin Netanyahu is considered a democratic nationalist and a quintessential Israeli patriot.
It appears that what has triggered Radosh is Trump’s praise for the conservative government in Poland, which is taking seriously its election campaign promises to reform a corrupt judiciary. Radosh repeats the false progressive-liberal narrative that Poland is becoming “authoritarian” and “moving away from democracy.” He notes “the EU sued Poland for steps it has taken to undermine an independent judiciary.”
So, what is going on in Poland? The conservative Law and Justice government has inherited a corrupt judicial system that was established in 1989 in ”roundtable talks” between the “reformed” Communists and the anti-Communist Solidarity movement. Ultimately, the former Communists proved to be better negotiators.
Writing in National Review Online, Michael Brendan Dougherty described the unfortunate results of the roundtable negotiations. For decades, “the Polish judiciary was run like a medieval guild, with judges nominating their own successors. On occasion, the sons of existing judges would get preferential treatment over qualified law professors. Judges protected one another from lawsuits and pay freezes.” Further, the judiciary influenced by post-Communist elites repeatedly blocked transparency initiatives that would have revealed more perpetrators and collaborators of the crimes of the Communist-era dictatorship.
The Law and Justice government, whose leadership was formed by the most uncompromising anti-Communist elements in the Solidarity movement, is attempting to democratize the judiciary. In the final analysis, their judicial reforms will mean that democratically elected officials (rather than the sitting judges themselves) will play a role in the appointment of new judges. After all, in most Western democracies—including the United States and Germany—democratically elected officials participate in the process of choosing judges, otherwise one would have an unaccountable and undemocratic judicial oligarchy.
Radosh writes that Trump in his U.N. address “did not mention Hungary, but it’s likely [Stephen] Miller had Victor Orban and his Fidesz Party in mind” when the president declared that each sovereign nation should concentrate on “upholding national borders, destroying criminal gangs,” and “set[ting] its own immigration policy in accordance with its national interests.” Radosh then tells us that “[w]hat Trump means” is “all nations should echo his immigration policy.”
What is Radosh’s point? That it is somehow problematic for sovereign nations to uphold their borders, destroy transnational criminal gangs, and establish immigration policy on the basis of national interests because this is what Trump recommends? The implication is clear, if Trump is for it, it must be prima facie bad, no matter what the merits of the policy.
Democratic Sovereignty Rightly Understood
In point of fact, the president’s remarks on sovereignty, borders, and immigration are on an even higher plain than simple public policy. They are directly related to the core principle of American constitutional democracy—government by consent of the governed—the right of a free people to rule themselves.
Alexander Hamilton expressed this principle of democratic sovereignty succinctly in Federalist 1, when he declared the purpose of the American experiment in self-government was “to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend . . . on accident and force.”
Illegal mass migration in the United States and Europe brings into clear focus the crucial choice that Hamilton presented at America’s birth. Are policies decided by “reflection and choice” or by “accident and force”? Clearly, in the case of illegal immigration, “We the people” are not making policy based upon “reflection and choice,” but, as Hamilton feared might happen, immigration policy is being made for us by “accident” and in some cases (with MS-13) by “force.”
Most importantly, in direct contradiction to the core principle of our democratic republic “government by consent of the governed,” de-facto migration policy is being made without (and essentially against) the consent of the citizens of this country.
What President Trump did in his second U.N. speech was to take the Founders concept of independent self-government and articulate a universal principle of democratic sovereignty. Further, he correctly emphasized that “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, [and] democracy has ever endured.” Put otherwise, constitutional democracy and individual freedom do not exist (and are not militarily protected) within transnational and global institutions but only in sovereign nation-states and in alliances of sovereign states (NATO rather than the EU).
Returning to Self-Rule
Let us return to the two most important words in world politics: who decides? Who decides a nation’s immigration policy? The people in the host nation? A transnational organization like the U.N. or EU? Or the migrants voting with their feet against the wishes of the people in the host nation? As I write these words, yet another “caravan” of thousands of foreign migrants is heading for the U.S. border, highlighting the centrality of Hamilton’s existential question, once again.
I believe the president is declaring that just as Americans have the right of self-government, the Hungarians today are a free people and they have the right (and they have expressed this right by voting overwhelmingly for Fidesz and border control in a free democratic election) to decide for themselves their own immigration policy, rather than having that policy decided for them by the supranational European Union (with the prodding of the two overbearing nations in that Union: Germany and France) or by the migrants themselves who arrive in Hungary and other sovereign European nations without the consent of the governed.
Our president is simply saying that democratic sovereign peoples have the moral right to rule themselves. Once an excellent historian, but now severely afflicted with, and apparently traumatized by, Trump Derangement Syndrome, Ronald Radosh finds this core principle of American constitutional morality objectionable.