[Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on September 19, 2017]
It would be an understatement to say that Donald Trump’s first speech to the United Nations’ General Debate, on 19 October, was expected by observers of the international political scene.
As we have come to expect from most Trump interventions, it started off with self-praise for the unprecedented prosperity, record-breaking economy and unheard-of unemployment rate of the United States. All since November 8th, and since then only.
After a short praise of UN peacekeeping missions as contributors to peace in African countries, the President continued by criticising countries that “hijacked the system” and steered it away from its noble goal. First and foremost were North Korea, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela.
The remainder of the intervention — a solid 15 minutes — was a fervent ode to nationalism, sovereignty and patriotism as the sole remedies to the world’s ills and problems. Surely, the irony of pronouncing these words in the temple of multilateralism, founded following a war waged out of aggressive nationalism, was not lost on the audience.
According to President Trump, there is “no substitute for strong sovereign and independent nations, rooted in their histories and invested in their future, […] nations that are home to patriots, willing to sacrifice for their country, fellow citizens and all that is best in the human spirit.” He further argued that “the true question for the United Nations today […] is: are we still patriots? Do we love our nations enough to protect their sovereignty and to take ownership of their future? Do we revere them enough to defend their interest and ensure a peaceful world for their citizens?” Finally, he ended his tirade by “calling for a great reawakening of nations, for the revival of their spirit, their pride, their people, and their patriotism. […] Our hope is a world of proud, independent nations.”
Understanding Donald Trump is always a challenge, for he readily says things and their exact opposite a few sentences apart. He praised the UN and placed the interest of nations above all. He applauded the work of international peacekeepers and affirmed that nations were the only ones capable of helping themselves. He claimed nations should “secure their future” and criticized North Korea for arming itself.
Let us be clear: North Korea’s actions are the direct application of Mr Trump’s ideology. Indeed, the North Korean regime does not share American values, but it acts according to Donald Trump’s principles: place the nation before all, affirm your sovereignty, reject any source of outside interference, secure your borders and your nation, revive your pride, be independent.
President Trump did more than just promote isolationism and a “every nation for itself” way of life. By boasting of its sanctions against Venezuela and Cuba, it enshrined the right of every nation to support its own interests on the international scene by force and by bullying smaller players. The US does not approve of another country’s internal policies? It applies sanctions. Based on that principle, how could anyone call out China for forcing Vietnam to stop oil drills in its Exclusive Economic Zone under threat of military force, as it did just earlier this summer?
The fundamental flaw in Mr Trump’s reasoning is the same inconsistency that is found at the base of every nationalist thought.
In his speech, President Trump affirmed: “If we will not build strong families, safe communities and healthy societies for ourselves, no one can do it for us.” He recognises the importance of families, of local communities and of national bodies. At the same time, he fails to go beyond the national horizon. According to this view, any community below or at the level of the nation is natural but nothing brings together communities at a level above the nation, save the self-interest of the nation itself.
In the long list of concentric circles that humans belong to, from the individual to the whole of mankind, nationalists — and Donald Trump among them — place a sacred seal on the nation and deny any higher legitimacy. As if our nations were intrinsically destined to be together as communities separate from other nations. As if they were the omega of human relationships.
This is a particularly interesting view from the leader of a nation which, at the time of its independence, included less than 2% of its current territory and only 0.7% of its current population. And one that got so much of its population from migration inflows. Of course, Donald Trump’s own family came from Germany. Therefore, the very concept of “American nation” changed drastically over time and only took its present shape through war, negotiation and coincidences.
The danger with this view is obviously that it pits nations against each other: it transforms international relations into a zero-sum game where one country’s gain is another country’s loss. Where international trade is seen as a risk of delocalisation. As Mr Trump said: “We must solve our problems to build our prosperity, to secure our future, or we will build vulnerable to decay, domination and defeat.” In other words: we need to protect ourselves from others or we will lose and perish.
On the contrary, national borders are the uncertain result of an on-going history. They have evolved time and time again and must be expected to change time and time again in the future, and the nations within these borders will change with them. Borders are not strict delimitations between culturally homogeneous and self-exclusive groups. Constant in- and outflows at the US-Mexican border crossings are but a proof of that. People spend their time crossing borders and many conjugate several nationalities and identities.
In effect, borders are no more than administrative divisions between countries, as State lines are internal administrative divisions within the US. Policies may be different on opposite sides but principles remain the same: democracy, rule of law, human rights all stand across borders. If democracy is a good thing at the local level, and a good thing at the State level, and a good thing at the national level, then it must necessarily be a good thing at the international level. If we support the rule of law internally, then we cannot advocate the rule of strength internationally. If we seek to ensure human rights at home, then we must defend and protect them abroad.
The UN was created because division, exclusion and a national sense of superiority had brought Europe and the world as a whole to their most cruel and destructive point in history. Because some nations’ decision to “secure their future” and “defend their interest” trumped any other concern. Because “patriots” were ready to die and kill for the sake of their nation above all else. I contend that the countless French, British, Americans, German resistants, and people of all other continents and origins, fought and died, not for the sake of their country — at least not simply for the sake of their country — but for a greater ideal. For liberty. Because the oppression of any one man, anywhere on the planet, should matter to all, regardless of his nationality. Because his oppression is our oppression. Because we are not separate people in separate countries. Because we are, and forever will be, United Nations.
Originally published at foodforthought.blog.lemonde.fr on September 19, 2017.