Standing before representatives of the entire world, US President Donald Trump insisted1 that he was “okay” with the scorning merriment that his September 25 UN speech provoked. The speech itself was no laughing matter, however. Indeed, despite its incoherent and self-indulgent features, it set out the basic dividing line that separates the Trump Administration from the normative, institutional, and legal consensus that has imperfectly framed international relations for more than 70 years.
Trump was in fact entirely frank about his message: henceforth, each country must forge a foreign policy based on its own values, cultures, and traditions. Putting a new spin on political scientist Samuel Huntington’s notion of a “clash of civilizations” (a term which Huntington borrowed from the late historian Bernard Lewis), Trump proclaimed that if the international community is bound by any thread, it is the pursuit not merely of state self-interest, but the projection of a nation’s identity.
This doctrine is not necessarily a prescription for global anarchy. Once again, the president heralded “America’s policy of principled realism” in his speech. Trump may not have read the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes’s works on social theory and political realism, but he probably assumes that for what he (or his speech writer) calls “principled realism” to work, the system needs an enforcer—a strong state that can, and indeed must, violate the rule of national sovereignty to keep other states in line.
If there is one arena that clearly manifests the diplomatic implications of this doctrine, it is the escalating global contest over the fate of the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, better known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). However hard he tries, Trump cannot shake the determination of Iran and its supporters in the international community to transform the struggle over his renunciation of the JCPOA into a broader battle to defend the principle of global cooperation. What is at stake in this diplomatic contest is the capacity of western governments to demonstrate that the law of the bully will not prevail.
Trump’s “Principled Realism”
As with all issues in which Trump is involved, the president’s doctrine is a hodgepodge of ideas, themes, and impulses that resist easy categorization. For starters, his UN speech advanced the long-standing realist proposition that it is only through the pursuit of state sovereignty that the world can achieve some semblance of global order, and even peace. As Trump put it, “This is great news for our citizens and for peace-loving people everywhere. We believe that when nations respect the rights of their neighbors, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity, and peace.”
Yet this is no simple realpolitik defense of absolute state sovereignty. Instead, Trump’s speech marked the unveiling of a nationalist concept of sovereignty rooted in the principle that, as Trump stated, it is “the right of every nation … to pursue its own customs, beliefs, and traditions.” This celebration of cultural relativism posited “globalism” and “patriotism” as two antagonistic norms of international relations. The former, Trump argues, is a threat to sovereignty based on both old and “new forms of coercion and domination.” The latter, by contrast, assumes that all countries must pursue “their own unique visions … of destiny, of legacy, and of a home.” For Trump, sovereignty is first and foremost a product of a shared national identity and a prescription for any kind of political system supposedly in line with this identity.
This glorifying of a 1930s-like concept of nationalist self-sufficiency must have shocked those western leaders who thought they had heard it all from this US president. But for the growing club of nationalist autocratic governments whose ambassadors were present, it must have seemed as if Trump’s words had descended like manna from heaven. These governments not only espouse a classic notion of state sovereignty; even more so, they are at one with Trump’s praise for their “intense loyalty to your homeland,” and by implication, with a concept of nationhood that rejects the idea that there is any universal yardstick for measuring political rights or freedoms. It is no coincidence that those countries that Trump singled out for praise—namely Saudi Arabia, Israel, Poland, and America—are led by illiberal populists. Trump’s speech constituted the first-ever ringing endorsement by a US president of the idea that ideological or cultural sectarianism can and must provide the basis for international politics.
The Trump Doctrine in Action: Venezuela, Iran, and North Korea
The problem with Trump’s concept of the global order is not merely that it requires a global enforcer or bully. The deeper—if closely related—problem is that Trump does not in fact respect the proposition that all governments that strive to defend their people’s pride deserve equal sovereignty rights. On the contrary, his speech suggests that when they get in the way of the United States or its friends, they deserve a good thrashing—even if this comes at the expense of national identity and their own sovereignty.
Take his verbal assault on Venezuela, for example. After saying that “socialism has bankrupted the oil-rich nation” and led to “expansion, incursion, and oppression,” Trump insisted that all “nations gathered … join us in calling for the restoration of democracy in Venezuela.” Given the terms of his own anti-globalist vision, however, it is not clear on what basis Trump can now assert that the international community should work with the United States to impose additional sanctions on a regime that is “repressive,” as he put it—one that has been led by elected populist demagogues who espouse national sovereignty and pride as fervently (and as opportunistically) as Trump himself.
The self-serving inconsistencies animating Trump’s doctrine became even more glaring when he turned to Iran. Having already stated clearly that his administration would not be bound by international agreements, Trump reiterated his determination not merely to oppose the “horrible” JCPOA, as he described the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, but to secure international support for reimposing sanctions on Tehran.
The key charge that he levels against Tehran to justify this policy is Iran’s role in Syria. Tehran’s support for Assad, Trump claims, not only shows that Iran is guilty of supporting a dictator; its larger crime lies in the fact that “Iran’s leaders … do not respect their neighbors or borders, or the sovereign rights of nations.” But Trump, or at least his advisors, surely know that Iran—like Russia—rescued Assad after he asked for military assistance from both countries. No matter how sordid its actions have been, Iran did not in fact violate Syria’s sovereignty.
The sovereignty issue is, of course, a deflection, one that once again illustrates that the only real logic that underlies “principled realism” is the rule of power. This point is amply demonstrated by the fact that Trump does not accuse Russia of violating Syria’s sovereignty; indeed, he does not even mention Moscow’s role in Syria. Of course, it is hardly surprising that he is not about to pursue a military confrontation with a global power like Russian. Nor is Trump ready to tangle with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose political favor he has constantly craved. To be sure, Trump’s deepest impulse is to embrace tough autocratic leaders—particularly when doing so seems a far smarter strategy than challenging them. Thus, standing before the UN General Assembly, Trump readily praised the “courage” of North Korea’s Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un, but then insisted that Iran’s leaders deserve his administration’s—and the world’s—hostility.
The only core factor that actually explains Trump’s strikingly different approaches is that military confrontation is not a viable option when it comes to North Korea, a country that has a robust nuclear weapons program. But military force remains a real and less risky option when it comes to Iran, a country that has no nuclear weapons program and, paradoxically, was unlikely to create such a capacity under the terms of the international agreement Trump has renounced. At the end of the day, it is the US capacity to bully rivals (and even so-called friends) that counts most, and not the elements of a half-baked doctrine concocted to justify the arbitrary use of US power to punish US rivals.
Iran and its European Supporters Defend Globalism
The contradictions that animate Trump’s doctrine may be of little concern to his domestic supporters. But when it comes to the international arena, its gaping holes provide both rivals and long-standing (if irritated) US allies with ample grist for resisting Trump’s policies.
This point was amply demonstrated by the reaction of both Iran and its European supporters to Trump’s speech. No stranger to carefully pitched ideological battles, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani jumped into the breach that the US president helped to dig. “We have assembled here today,” he told his audience, “as the world is suffering from the recklessness and disregard of some states for international values and institutions.” Warming to his subject, he asserted that “confronting multilateralism is not a sign of strength; rather it is a symptom of the weakness of intellect—it betrays an inability to understand a complex and interconnected world.” By contrast, Rouhani argued, Iran’s “approach … has been based on multilateralism and compliance with … international law.” Thus, the Iranian president effectively threw down the gauntlet by linking the integrity and survival of the JCPOA to the wider principle of defending globalism. This was a message he had good reason to assume would be well received. “We are pleased,” Rouhani stated, “that the international community did not acquiesce to the US government’s unilateral and illegal withdrawal from the JCPOA.”
Of course, Rouhani’s speech had its own deflections. His defense of Iran’s actions in Syria—namely that its military assistance had been “requested” by the Assad government—provides no justification for the role that Tehran and its allies played in backing Assad’s violent assault on his own people. But such inconsistencies did not undercut the allure of his wider message, particularly for an audience that knows full well that displays of international hypocrisy do not by themselves negate the quest for global norms and multilateral coordination. Thus, after President Trump took his seat as temporary chair of the UN Security Council, a number of western leaders rose to denounce his abandonment of the JCPOA and to reiterate their support for globalism.
US Isolation is Music to Trump’s Ears
Trump’s critics have been quick to note the double irony displayed by Rouhani’s speech and the stinging criticisms that Iran’s western supporters directed at the American president: the US administration is not only isolated in the global arena, but it has managed to help reinforce the efforts of Iran to pose as a defender of globalism, and on that basis, to work in partnership with European nations to save the JCPOA. The fate of the latter has become inseparable from the struggle to defend some semblance of global governance and, what is more, to stave off the populist nationalism that Trump has so effectively planted at the center of his concept of “principled realism.”
At least for the time being, however, Trump has the wind at his back. The unfolding effort of Iranian and European leaders to create a “special purpose vehicle” to circumvent US sanctions faces an uphill battle. US sanctions are going to impose a significant cost on Iran, one that any such mechanism is unlikely to attenuate in a consequential way. Moreover, Trump has like-minded supporters in Europe and the Middle East who see in his populist nationalism a useful tool for building and legitimating a close working relationship with his administration.
Finally, on the domestic front, Trump is riding a wave of illiberal patriarchal nationalism that could very well survive the midterm November elections. All of these factors are closely intertwined. Trump’s UN speech unveiled a vision that is consonant with his base. His supporters welcome Trump’s strong-arm tactics and believe that his defiance of critics at home and abroad demonstrates his prowess. This is why the apparent isolation of the United States in the international community is music to Trump’s ears.
This does not mean that when it comes to US policy toward Iran, the administration has any chance of getting Iran’s leaders to submit to its will. The more likely consequence of abandoning the JCPOA will be a collapse of the agreement and an ensuing effort by Tehran, under the guidance of its most hard-line leaders, to resume a high-grade enrichment program. The chances for a military conflict between Washington and Tehran will then escalate. The paradox is that given Trump’s own domestic economic priorities, such a conflict is not necessarily one he will want, much less benefit from. But like all populist leaders, Trump’s immediate priority is political survival. If this requires a sprinkle of lightweight doctrine together with crude threats and taunts, he is more than happy to oblige both his critics and his supporters.
1 All quotes from Trump’s speech found in this article come from this source.