This week the Big Apple is hosting the UN General Assembly, and while world leaders will discuss many challenges, we expect a theme to dominate the US representatives’ views: sovereignty. This morning President Trump is expected to give remarks.
Last year when President Trump addressed the United Nations, he mentioned sovereignty 21 times, and the emphasis has been a steady drumbeat throughout the nearly two years he has been in office. This, more than any other issue, is what has defined the Trump foreign policy, which is more of a Trump “foreign principle” that leads to different policies based on complex considerations, than it is an overarching, coherent policy.
But what does the president’s administration mean when officials discuss sovereignty? There is ample evidence to turn over.
On December 18, 2017, the president discussed his new National Security Strategy. He blamed previous US administrations for ignoring clear threats to the United States. And he said, “They imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes. They surrendered our sovereignty to foreign bureaucrats in faraway and distant capitals.”
Then, the next month he said, “As President of the United States, I will always put America first, just like the leaders of other countries should put their country first also.”
It’s interesting to note that when President Trump discusses sovereignty, he makes clear that he doesn’t mean sovereignty only for the United States. He expects nations to act in the interest of their own people. And even when interests collide, he believes this still makes for a less confusing dynamic, which can be addressed better than when nations expect other nations to cede their own sovereignty to international organizations that do not act in their interests.
For example, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has explained that one of the major problems with the Iranian regime is that it does not recognize the sovereignty of other nations. On May 21, 2018, the secretary said that “Iran must respect the sovereignty of the Iraqi Government and permit the disarming, demobilization, and reintegration of Shia militias.”
On July 25, 2018, Secretary Pompeo issued a statement on Russia’s continued occupation of Ukraine. He said, “As democratic states seek to build a free, just, and prosperous world, we must uphold our commitment to the international principle of sovereign equality and respect the territorial integrity of other states. Through its actions, Russia has acted in a manner unworthy of a great nation and has chosen to isolate itself from the international community.” He emphasized the United States’ “support for Georgia’s sovereignty, independence, and territorial integrity” in a call with Georgian President Giorgi Margvelashvili.
On the Trump administration’s goals for the Indo-Pacific, Secretary Pompeo explained, “When we say ‘free’ Indo-Pacific, it means we all want all nations, every nation, to be able to protect their sovereignty from coercion by other countries. At the national level, ‘free’ means good governance and the assurance that citizens can enjoy their fundamental rights and liberties.”
Perhaps giving us the clearest picture of what the Trump administration has in mind is what was laid out in one of the most meaningful speeches of the Trump era, and that is National Security Advisor John Bolton’s speech on the International Criminal Court.
Taken together, prioritizing and defending American sovereignty means doing what the US executive branch can do, with intentionality and determination, to strengthen the United States—both militarily and economically—so that the American people can be secure and free to determine how they wish to engage in the world on their terms, based on what they determine is right and good.
This concept has many misconceptions. It is not disengagement from the world, as shown by President Trump’s fierce determination to strengthen the United States’ position in international trade deals. It is also deeply interested in other nations recognizing and respecting the sovereignty of other nations. The president himself has said this repeatedly. The prioritization of sovereignty, and in particular US sovereignty, is a welcome corrective to past administrations, especially the last one, which was overly concerned with the opinions of Western Europe, too deferential to international adjudicating bodies, and far too tolerant of the malign behavior of nations like China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea that sought to exploit American weakness.
Even so, the Trump administration’s approach remains imperfectly applied. I still have my doubts about the prospects of its North Korea strategy resulting in the dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear program, for example. And if the United States is truly going to bolster its sovereignty, there is much more we must do but are not doing in terms of bolstering our military capabilities. We should be initiating a truly robust missile defense architecture that ramps up regional and homeland missile defense deployments and utilizes space domain. Yet the Trump administration inexplicably carries on with the Obama architecture. And I remain skeptical that trade wars and tariffs will bear the desired fruit. All of this could change and the outcomes are yet to be determined.
However, the strong desire to make the United States truly independent—not beholden to the threats and the whims of foreign leaders with very different priorities, cultures, and views of right and wrong—and to listen carefully and respond to the will of the people, the true sovereign as outlined in our Constitution, offers great promise for a more realistic and just vision for America’s role in the world.
But what is the Christian to make of this strong pursuit of greater American sovereignty? It might seem harsh and divisive to the modern American Christian ear. Christians understand that our ultimate citizenship is not of this world (Philippians 3:20-21). Yet we live in time and space, and there is a God-ordained order for individuals, families, communities, and nations.
At the most basic level, scripture emphasizes the design for and responsibility of families, the original polis. Husbands and wives are mandated to love and care for one another and their children. The affection people have for their families is good, and it helps people to do as God would have them do, which is to provide for one’s relatives, and “especially for members of his household” (1 Timothy 5:8).
Beyond that, the families belonging to God’s people are to live in a church community, and pastors and congregants have a special responsibility for the well-being of their own “family” of covenanted believers.
This is not to say that mothers and fathers do not care for the children of their neighbors or for the children in other states or nations. But their biblical responsibility is primarily to their own children. It is not to say that the local church of which I am a member does not care for the neighboring church. We do! But we would be negligent in our responsibilities to our own brothers and sisters in Christ if we failed them because we were extending beyond our means to those outside our own local church.
And just as individuals are bound by families and are obligated to one another’s care, and as Christian families are bound in churches, so too are peoples bound by nations and have special obligations. Moreover, scripture makes clear that God has instituted individual governments (Romans 13:1).
Regarding the United States specifically, it is appropriate—I would go further and say that it ought to be unavoidable—for Christian American citizens to love, appreciate, and steward the unique gift that our republic has been and continues to be for the world and for Christians in particular. It remains the country with the greatest degree of religious freedom for Christians and other citizens of faith to worship and live as faithful servants of the God of the Bible with the least fear of government persecution. The opportunity for Christian evangelism and service to others is great.
Furthermore, when the United States thrives economically, it has more options for providing aid either at home or abroad to those for whom it might do practical and spiritual good, should Americans choose to spend it in that way. American Christians are, of course, more able to contribute to evangelistic opportunities at home and to support missions abroad when the economy is flourishing.
The United States is a force for good in the world, a model for governments desiring longevity, prosperity, and peace. But it will only remain so with great care and focus so that it can remain strong, able to protect its citizens, and not beholden to foreign governments with different mores and often with national objectives that are contradictory and even harmful to the United States. Central to this is the defense of national sovereignty.