If one were to believe Donald Trump's speech before the United Nations, in his short tenure as president he has already fixed the domestic problems he outlined in his "American Carnage" inaugural address and is now prepared to apply his methods to the rest of the planet. One might even call this speech "Global Carnage." Trump described a Hobbesian world in which decent countries everywhere are under assault from "small regimes" trying to undermine their sovereignty and destroy their ways of life. Or, as he elegantly phrased it: "Major portions of the world are in conflict, and some, in fact, are going to hell."
This was very much the way he described America on the day he was sworn in. It too was a desolate, dystopian hellscape of smoldering ruins and abandoned cities, where bands of foreigners and gangsters roamed the land, raping and pillaging and leaving carnage in their wake. He promised to take the country back (reclaim its sovereignty, if you will) from people who were trying to impose their values and culture on the Real Americans. He told the world on Tuesday morning that he had largely accomplished that task.
Contrary to popular belief among the chattering classes, the people who loved his promise to "make America great again" were undoubtedly pleased to see him pledge to get the world in order as well. Trump was saying that it's none of America's business how you treat your own citizens (unless it interferes with business), and we are not going to honor any international treaties, laws or institutions that we don't like. But that doesn't mean other countries can do the same. We are a sovereign nation but we are also the richest and strongest superpower on earth, and we will decide when and where other people are allowed to exercise control over their own countries.
Not that the president said any of that explicitly, of course. He waxed on about sovereignty and the sanctity of the nation-state, even as he blathered unconvincingly about the greatness of the United Nations. But when it came to specifics, he made it quite clear that he defines what "sovereignty" actually means.
For instance, Trump declared that America did not "expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government" but denounced Cuba and Venezuela for their "failed" socialist economic systems. He called out Iran for human rights violations and support for terrorist organizations, while praising Saudi Arabia and ignoring its abysmal human rights record, as well as the monarchy's longtime support for what might well be called "radical Islamic terrorism."
Trump extolled the Marshall Plan, the United States' rebuilding of Europe after World War II, in the same breath as he complained about the U.S. paying for too much of the UN's operations. (He did say that if the UN would just get on with creating world peace it would be a worthwhile investment.) He careened wildly from some warped form of principled realism to threats of mass annihilation and back again.
This statement, which will be remembered for a long time, encompasses it all:
"The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing, and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That's what the United Nations is all about. That's what the United Nations is for. Let's see how they do."
Yes, "hopefully it will not be necessary" to kill millions of innocent people. That would be a real bummer, especially for a nation that has such respect for other nations' sovereignty.
He demanded that North Korea "denuclearize" and said that ensuring that outcome is what "the United Nations is all about." He wants to "see how they do," as if the U.S. is merely an observer of that whole process while pondering whether it's necessary to obliterate an entire country.
It doesn't occur to Trump that by unilaterally withdrawing, for no good reason, from agreements the U.S. has made with other sovereign nations, he has helped create this problem. The world now believes that no agreement the U.S. signs is worth the paper it's written on -- which also means there's no point in making "deals" with Trump or any other president. He's basically made clear that America is completely untrustworthy.
Nor does Trump seem to understand that when nations like Iran and North Korea see the president of the United States issuing bellicose threats to kill all their people and destroy their country, they logically assume that having nuclear weapons at their disposal might be the only way to deter him. Apparently nobody in the U.S. government has the capacity to rein him in. What choice do they have?
Interestingly, with all of his bellicose saber-rattling against "small regimes," the president forgot one flagrant example of a major country interfering in the internal affairs of another nation. That, of course, would be the Russian interference in the U.S. presidential campaign of 2016. It also slipped his mind that Russia recently staged a military incursion into neighboring Ukraine -- but then, he has said more than once he thinks that's fine too. When it comes to Russia, there seems to be no limit to this president's tolerance.
We already knew that Trump's concern for the sovereignty of other nations was entirely contingent on his feelings about their leadership and whatever he heard most recently on "Fox & Friends." But it's still jarring to realize that he really doesn't even care about American sovereignty. As long as foreign actors interfere on his personal behalf he has no problem with it.
"America First" really means "Trump First." He is the sovereign, not the state or indeed the people (which is, at least notionally, the idea behind American democracy). Historically, that's the sort of arrogant assumption from which massive errors of judgment are made. Global carnage often follows.