Trump Offers a Selective View of Sovereignty in U.N. Speech

“It looks like we will respect the sovereignty of countries we like, whether they are dictatorships or democracies, but we will not respect the sovereignty of countries we don’t like,” said Vali R. Nasr, the dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. “His definition of sovereignty comes from a very narrow domestic prism.”

There was an echo of George W. Bush’s democracy promotion agenda in Mr. Trump’s words. And two of the countries on Mr. Bush’s “axis of evil” — Iran and North Korea — featured in Mr. Trump’s hit list. But unlike Mr. Bush, this president made it clear he had no desire to impose America’s political system on other countries.

That did not stop him from railing against the policies of his three major nemeses. North Korea, he said, starved and tortured its people, and had ordered the assassination of Kim Jong-nam, the half brother of its tyrannical ruler, Kim Jong-un. Iran’s regime had transformed a proud nation into an “economically depleted rogue state.” Venezuela’s leader, Nicolás Maduro, had stolen power and left his people in poverty and misery.

All three, he warned, could feel the full fury of American might, going so far as to say that if the United States were forced to defend itself, “we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”

But Mr. Trump said nothing about human rights abuses in countries that are either allies, like Saudi Arabia, or that do not rise to the level of strategic threat, like Myanmar, which is systematically persecuting its Muslim minority, but which went unmentioned in his speech.

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“The Iranian regime’s support for terror is in stark contrast to the recent commitments of many of its neighbors to fight terrorism and halt its finance,” he said, before singling out Saudi Arabia for praise.

Mr. Trump was also more cautious about the imperial ambitions of two great powers, Russia and China. “We must reject threats to sovereignty from the Ukraine to the South China Sea,” he declared in his only reference to Russia’s destabilization of its neighbor and China’s establishment of a chain of military outposts in disputed waters off its coast.

His failure to mention Russia’s interference in the 2016 election was in keeping with his general reluctance to criticize Moscow. But it was nevertheless remarkable, given that few actions constitute a more direct threat to American sovereignty than that one.

Mr. Trump did take China to task for its reluctance to do more to curb its neighbor, North Korea. “It is an outrage that some nations would not only trade with such a regime, but would arm, supply and financially support a country that imperils the world with nuclear conflict,” he said.

Some analysts played down the inconsistency in Mr. Trump’s approach, saying it was a recurring feature of American foreign policy, under presidents from both political parties, because the nation’s values and strategic interests do not always align.

“His specific comments about Venezuela, Cuba, and Iran indicate he does not believe the concept of sovereignty immunizes them from criticism or endless abuse of their citizens,” said Elliott Abrams, a senior State Department official during the Bush administration.

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Mr. Abrams said he believed the president “squared the circle” by linking the concept of sovereignty with a coalition of successful sovereign states. Such a coalition, he said, could act together to confront threats like North Korea’s nuclear program under the banner of the U.N.

For Mr. Abrams, who described his overall reaction to the speech as positive, there were two omissions. Mr. Trump did not mention the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, even though the president has declared it to be a major goal of his administration. Mr. Abrams said that spoke to the diminishing strategic importance of the issue for the Middle East.

The president, he said, was also obviously still grappling with how to deal with the concept of human rights. Though Mr. Trump spoke broadly about freedom, he never explicitly referred to individual rights.

“How does the promotion of freedom fit in?” Mr. Abrams said. “I still don’t think we know the answer to that.”

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