Sovereignty is a concept that lies at the heart of President Trump's "America First" agenda. Recently, it has emerged with greater force and clarity. Yet with a few exceptions, the policy establishment does not have the slightest clue what it means.
Most intellectual elites had no idea what the Trump political revolution of the 2016 election meant either. Some, including many Never Trumpers, have continued to pretend they can explain Trump to the masses with great authority, while others foam at the mouth at his every utterance and action.
Certainly, self-styled "smart people" are entitled to remain within their own bubbles and talk only to people who confirm their worldviews. For those who actually wish to understand the world better, the emergence of sovereignty as a more cogent governing concept in the Trump administration is a fascinating development.
On the campaign trail, Trump talked incessantly about sovereignty but never mentioned it by name. His preferred language was: "We either have a country or we don't."
Voters understood that he was referring to uncontrollable illegal immigration from the southern border, to illegal immigrants who believe they are entitled to remain in the U.S. even if the laws say otherwise, and to politicians from both parties who cower before identity politics rather than offer viable solutions. In unmistakable terms, Trump was defending America's sovereign right to control its borders, to choose who enters its land.
Similarly, when candidate Trump talked about, and when Trump later acted on, restricting travel from terror-prone countries, he was referring to America's sovereign right to defend its homeland. Compassion for refugees from overseas was a laudable goal, but protecting American lives was Trump's first priority.
It was no surprise then that the word "sovereignty" emerged front and center in Trump's first speech at the United Nations General Assembly in September.
There, he declared, "Strong, sovereign nations let their people take ownership of the future and control their own destiny" and that "as president of the United States, I will always put America first … All responsible leaders have an obligation to serve their own citizens."
In other words, sovereignty means sovereignty for Americans and other nations.
Sovereignty for Americans means domestic policies such as the Trump administration's latest proposed immigration reforms: building a wall, defunding "sanctuary cities," reducing the population of unaccompanied illegal minors, punishing visa overstays, restructuring legal immigration, and other border-security measures.
Sovereignty for Americans also means the right to reject treaties and international arrangements (be they trade agreements or climate accords) that Americans, through their elected leaders, have decided are counter to their national interests.
There is also sovereignty for other countries, something Trump's most recent Republican predecessor did not seem to care much about.
Trump's campaign rhetoric on these issues was again direct, not intellectual: He repeatedly denounced the pursuit of "stupid, endless wars" and counted as an example the invasion of Iraq by former President George W. Bush in 2003.
The war's intellectual history is worth recounting for sovereignty's purposes. During the run-up to and the early days of the Iraq War, the Bush administration at times maintained that it was waging a global democratic revolution only to complement the military campaign aimed at eliminating Saddam Hussein and his weapons of mass destruction.
At other times, the administration barely disguised democracy promotion in the Arab world as a central rationale. Liberty for the Iraqi people, according to Bush, was a "great strategic goal" because "as long as the Middle East remains a place of tyranny and despair and anger, it will continue to produce men and movements that threaten the safety of America and [its] friends."
When WMDs could not be found in Iraq after the invasion, Bush claimed outright that democracy in Iraq alone was sufficient for breaching Iraq's sovereignty. Self-defense, a traditional justification for the use of force against another state, could no longer be invoked in this case. Freedom, and all the idealism it has inspired, became a fall back for gross incompetence and miscalculation. Meanwhile, trillions of dollars spent and hundreds of thousands of lives lost continue to haunt U.S. foreign policy decision-making today.
Today, the Trump administration is undoing some of the intellectual sloppiness of Bush's worst excesses. At the U.N. last month, Trump officially pooh-poohed the forcible export of democracy as a goal in U.S. foreign policy and stated, "In America, we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch."
Trump continued, "We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government. But we do expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation."
Americans and other countries should welcome Trump's acknowledgment. Reality, as seen from U.S. policy in Venezuela and elsewhere, is of course more complicated than one speech would indicate, but acknowledging the interests of your citizens and guarding your country's sovereignty imposes far better discipline on foreign policy than loose talk about fighting (or bombing) for universal ideals.
Trump's official adoption and unabashed continued embrace of the concept of sovereignty is a welcome moment in the development of his governing philosophy — America and the world are better for it.
Ying Ma (@GZtoGhetto) is a contributor to the Washington Examiner's Beltway Confidential blog. She is a senior advisor at Avenue Strategies and author of Chinese Girl in the Ghetto. Previously she was former deputy director of the Committee for American Sovereignty, a pro-Trump super PAC, and the former deputy policy and communications director of the Ben Carson presidential campaign.
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