Perhaps more unsettling than the United Nations General Assembly laughing at — not with — a sitting U.S. president is the unprecedentedly protectionist nature of the address delivered by that president to the world Tuesday.
The laughter came after Donald Trump boasted that, “In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.” But what followed was far more damaging than the optics of world leaders laughing at the erstwhile leader of the Free World.
We say erstwhile because this president has made it clear his vision of the U.S. has little to do with what his own party has long called “American exceptionalism,” or as the Republican platform defines it: “the notion that our ideas and principles as a nation give us a unique place of moral leadership in the world.”
Those ideas and principles are derived from what our Founders called the “self-evident truths” that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Since this nation’s founding, we’ve struggled to live up to these principles and ideas, including abroad, where diplomacy in pursuit of U.S. interests often results in cooperation with authoritarian, antidemocratic leaders.
But what’s unique about this president is his “America First” disdain for multilateralism on both the economic and diplomatic fronts. As he said at the U.N., “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered.”
Never mind that multilateral agreements, alliances and treaties — most notably NATO and the U.S. security alliances with Japan and South Korea, all three of which Trump has criticized as too costly and not worth the investment — have prevented the kind of global conflagration not seen since World War II.
In place of the moral leadership that once promoted political and economic liberalization, Trump praises authoritarian leaders in Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Russia and North Korea. He values “sovereignty” above multilateral cooperation and universal human rights. “America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism,” he said Tuesday.
This helps explain America’s recent withdrawal from the U.N. Human Rights Council, as well as Trump's scuttling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, his assault on NAFTA, and his growing list of tariffs against China and other U.S. trading partners.
The Trump approach, former U.S. Trade Representative Robert Zoellick told us this week, “pits American nationalism against American internationalism.” For 240 years, explained Zoellick, “America’s leaders believed the two ideas were mutually reinforcing, not in conflict.”
Throughout the 20th century, the former World Bank president continued, “American patriots worked to secure peace, expand prosperity and promote liberty. Many gave their lives. They learned — the hard way — that America’s global leadership was good for our country and for others. Perhaps America will need to learn that lesson again.”
While we agree with Zoellick that American leadership is good not just for Americans but for the world, we hope it doesn’t take another military confrontation in Europe or Asia to bring that truth home.
One could argue that Trump — who told the U.N. he was largely responsible for the “booming” U.S. economy, a stock market at “an all-time high” and jobless claims “at a 50-year low” — believes he and his administration have the leverage and momentum they need, and the obligation to American workers, to play hardball with friend and foe alike.
But we would caution this president that history has shown that trade disputes often escalate into trade wars, and those who suffer most are the workers whose economic interests he’s vowed to defend. More fundamentally, we would warn against abandoning the belief in American exceptionalism and any retreat from the promotion of liberal democracy and human rights.
For as another Republican president, Ronald Reagan — a firm supporter of the NATO alliance and unabashed believer in American exceptionalism — said in a 1982 address to the British Parliament:
“We must be staunch in our conviction that freedom is not the sole prerogative of a lucky few but the inalienable and universal right of all human beings."
— Dallas Morning News, Sept. 27