Donald Trump on Tuesday confirmed yet again why he is the most robust president since Ronald Reagan. Following up on his brilliant speeches before a joint session of Congress in February, his speech about combating Islamic terrorism before Arab leaders in Saudi Arabia, and his splendid defense of Western civilizational values in Warsaw a few months ago, Trump addressed the United Nations and articulated for the 150 delegates at that ostentatiously corrupt institution the signal lesson of successful international relations: that freedom within nations, and comity among them, is best served not by the effacement or attenuation of national sovereignty but its frank and manly embrace.
“Sovereignty,” indeed, was the master word of Trump’s address. The word and its cognates occur 21 times in the 4,300-word talk, centrally in conjunction with the core Trumpian ideal of “principled realism.”
“We are guided,” Trump explained, “by outcomes, not ideology. We have a policy of principled realism, rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.”
The United Nations has in recent decades become a poster child for bureaucratic despond: corrupt, wasteful, and inefficient. It has also evolved into a megaphone for anti-American, left-wing sentiment, often hiding behind utopian world-government rhetoric.
This development, Trump reminded his listeners, is a blunt betrayal of the noble aspirations that formed the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II. Trump quoted Harry Truman, who stressed that the success of the United Nations depended on the “independent strength of its members.” The United Nations was not created to subvert national sovereignty but to help guarantee it.
One of the most refreshing things about Trump’s address—it is characteristic of his speeches—was his frankness. At the U.N., this had a positive as well as a critical side. On the positive side, I found it a breath of fresh air to hear an American president celebrate the achievements of America.
“The United States of America,” Trump said, “has been among the greatest forces for good in the history of the world, and the greatest defenders of sovereignty, security, and prosperity for all.” This is the simple truth, but I do not recall hearing such sentiments from the White House in recent years.
On the critical side, Trump was equally forthright. He affirmed his intention to battle threats to sovereignty from “the Ukraine to the South China Sea.” He roundly castigated the handful of “depraved” rogue regimes that not only terrorize their own people but threaten world peace. They violate, he noted, every principle upon which the U.N. was founded. In one the speech’s two most memorable moments, he called out the deplorable regime of Kim Jong-un in North Korea. The patience of the United States, Trump noted, is great, but it is not infinite.
If North Korea persists in its policy of nuclear blackmail, Trump explained, the United States “will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.” He continued: “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime.” I could almost hear tongues clucking at the New York Times and the Washington Post, as much for the contemptuous nickname as for the threat of military force. But I liked it, just as I liked his robust calling-a-spade-a-spade moment with respect to the criminal regime of Iran, one of the world’s most ostentatious enablers of terrorism.
But Trump’s comments about North Korea and Iran were not only a declaration of resolve. They were also a challenge to the United Nations, the forum in which rogue regimes like Iran and North Korea ought to be brought to heel. The United States would step up to the plate by itself if necessary. But, Trump said, it would be better if the United Nations address the outliers. “If the righteous many do not confront the wicked few,” Trump said in another memorable line, “then evil will triumph.”
There were several good lines in this spectacular address. I think my absolute favorite—even better than the “Rocket Man” comment—came in Trump’s discussion of the failed socialist state of Venezuela. A few years ago Leftists from Jeremy Corbyn to Barack Obama were salivating over Hugo Chavez and his socialist policies. What we’ve seen, as could have been predicted—as was predicted by some of us—is that country’s rapid descent into poverty and chaos. “The problem in Venezuela,” Trump said, “is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented.”
It is important to see Trump’s speech in the the broader context of utopian ambition generally. In a memorable passage at the beginning of The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant evokes a soaring dove that, “cleaving the air in her free flight,” feels the resistance of the wind and imagines that its flight “would be easier still in empty space.” It is a fond thought, of course, since absent that aeolian pressure that dove would simply plummet to the ground.
How regularly the friction of reality works that way: making possible our endeavors even as it circumscribes and limits their extent. And how often, like Kant’s dove, we are tempted to imagine that our freedoms would be grander and more extravagant absent the countervailing forces that make them possible.
align=”left” It wasn’t so long ago that I had hopes that the Marxist-socialist rot—outside the insulated purlieus of humanities departments at Western universities, anyway—was on the fast track to oblivion. Has any “philosophy” ever been so graphically refuted by events (or by numbers of corpses)?
Such fantasies are as perennial as they are vain. They insinuate themselves everywhere in the economy of human desire, not least in our political arrangements. Noticing the imperfection of our societies, we may be tempted into thinking that the problem is with the limiting structures we have inherited. If only we could dispense with them, we might imagine, beating our wings, how much better things might be.
What a cunning, devilish word is “might.” For here as elsewhere, possibility is cheap. Scrap our current political accommodations and things might be better. Then again, they might be a whole lot worse. Vide the host of tyrannies inspired by that disciple of airy possibility, Jean-Jacques Rousseau. “Man was born free,” he declaimed, “but is everywhere in chains”: two startling untruths in a single famous utterance.
Rousseau was keen on “forcing men to be free,” but we had to wait until his followers Robespierre and Saint-Just to discover that freedom in this sense is often indistinguishable from what Robespierre chillingly called “virtue and its emanation, terror.”
Something similar can be said about that other acolyte of possibility, Karl Marx. How much misery have his theories underwritten, promising paradise but delivering tyranny, oppression, poverty, and death?
It wasn’t so long ago that I had hopes that the Marxist-socialist rot—outside the insulated purlieus of humanities departments at Western universities, anyway—was on the fast track to oblivion. Has any “philosophy” ever been so graphically refuted by events (or by numbers of corpses)?
Maybe not, but refutation plays a much more modest role in human affairs than we might imagine. In fact, the socialist-inspired utopian chorus is alive and well, playing to full houses at an anti-democratic redoubt near you.
Consider the apparently unkillable dream of “world government.” It is as fatuous now as it was when H. G. Wells infused it with literary drama towards the beginning of the last century.
align=”right” Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars?
No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which was defeated at great cost only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty.
Every human child needs to learn to walk by himself; so, it seems, every generation needs to wean itself from the blandishments of various utopian schemes. In 2005, the political philosopher Jeremy Rabkin published a fine book called Law Without Nations? Why Constitutional Government Requires Sovereign States. Rabkin ably fleshed out the promise of his subtitle, but it would be folly to think this labor will not have to be repeated.
The temptation to exchange hard-won democratic freedom for the swaddling comfort of one or another central planning body is as inextinguishable as it is dangerous. As the English philosopher Roger Scruton argued, “Democracies owe their existence to national loyalties—the loyalties that are supposedly shared by government and opposition.” Confusing national loyalty with nationalism, many utopians argue that the former is a threat to peace. After all, wasn’t it national loyalty that sparked two world wars?
No, it was that perverted offspring, nationalism, which was defeated at great cost only by the successful mobilization of national loyalty. Scruton quotes Chesterton on this point: to condemn patriotism because people go to war for patriotic reasons, he said, is like condemning love because some loves lead to murder.
It is one of the great mysteries—or perhaps I should say it is one of the reliable reminders of human imperfection—that higher education often fosters a particular form of political stupidity. Scruton anatomizes that stupidity, noting “the educated derision that has been directed at our national loyalty by those whose freedom to criticize would have been extinguished years ago, had the English not been prepared to die for their country.” This peculiar mental deformation, Scruton observes, involves “the repudiation of inheritance and home.” It is a stage, he writes,
through which the adolescent mind normally passes. But it is a stage in which intellectuals tend to become arrested. As George Orwell pointed out, intellectuals on the Left are especially prone to it, and this has often made them willing agents of foreign powers. The Cambridge spies [Guy Burgess, Kim Philby, et al.] offer a telling illustration of what [this tendency] has meant for our country.
It is also telling that this déformation professionelle of intellectuals encourages them to repudiate patriotism as an atavistic passion and favor transnational institutions over national governments, rule by committee or the courts over democratic rule. Rabkin reminds us of the naïveté—what others have called “idealism”—that this preference requires. In order to believe that international bodies will protect human rights, for example, you would have to believe
that governments readily cooperate with other governments on common projects, even when such cooperation promises no direct exchange of benefits to each side. In the end, you must believe that human beings cooperate easily and naturally without much constraint—without much actual enforcement, hence without much need for force.
To believe this you must believe that almost all human beings are well-meaning, even to strangers. And you must believe that human beings have no very serious disagreements on fundamental matters.
The persistence of such beliefs is no guide to their cogency or truth. What that other Jeremy, Jeremy Bentham, long ago called “nonsense on stilts” presents a spectacle that is perhaps unsteady but nonetheless mesmerizing. And when it comes to the erosion of the nation state and its gradual replacement by unaccountable, transnational entities such as the EU, the UN, or the so-called “World Court,” the results are ominous. As Andrew C. McCarthy has noted,
[w]ith the potent combination of a seismic shift in public attitudes away from democratic self-determination and toward oligarchic juristocracy (or rule by courts), as well as a sweeping infrastructure of so-called “international human rights law,” this movement is now poised to realize much of its goal: A world in which the nation state, the organizing geopolitical paradigm and engine of human progress since the Treaty of Westphalia, substantially gives way to a post-sovereign order of global governance led by supra-national tribunals (or tribunals that, though nominally “national,” pledge fealty to the higher calling of “humanity”). Like other utopian projects, the end of this one is tyranny.
Today, the nation state, that territorially based network of filiation bound together through shared history, custom, law, and language, is under greater siege than at any time since the dissolution of the Roman Empire. The external threat of radical Islam—pardon the pleonasm—may be the greatest threat to Western civilization since 1571 when the Battle of Lepanto checked the incursion of what we used to call the paynim foe into Europe.
But in the end, perhaps the greatest threat to the West lies not in its external enemies, no matter how hostile or numerous, but in its inner uncertainty—an uncertainty that is all-too-often celebrated as an especially enlightened form of subtlety and sophistication—about who we are.
The attack on the nation state—a less orotund formulation might say our unwitting self-demolition—proceeds apace on several fronts. The world will soon recognize the great service Donald Trump has done for the forces of civilization through his eloquent and impassioned defense of national sovereignty.
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