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Strategic Clarity
Yes, Mr. President—Sovereignty!

The President’s speech to the UN General Assembly last month contained the beginnings of a good idea for U.S. foreign policy. Now let’s see if he runs with it.

Published on: October 10, 2017
Anna Simons is a professor of defense analysis at the Naval Postgraduate School. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not reflect those of the U.S. Navy, Department of Defense, or any office of the U.S. government.
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  • CheckYourself
  • RedWell

    As the most powerful state on Earth for the last 70 years, the lead power in nearly all political and trade organizations, and the largest economy for the last 100, the United States has more sovereignty than anyone else.

    Sure, nationalists feel discomfited about a changing world and a raw deal on wages over the last generation (both real but not catastrophic concerns). But that does not change reality. We don’t need an emphasis on sovereignty: we already have it, in spades compared to everyone else.

    What we need is serious leadership and statesmanship, something we have been lacking in foreign policy for a generation, Dems and Republicans included.

    Trump’s emphasis on sovereignty represents the nadir of this baffling decline. We don’t need an obtuse emphasis on “me first!” We need people who understand both the world and America’s interests at both the immediate and long-term levels. People who aren’t threatened by trade or by military power. We need adults, we have a child.

    • Dale Fayda

      We re Obama, Clinton, Kerry, et al adults or children? If they were adults, can you explain the utter shambles in which they left American foreign policy? Were the actors in the Bush, Jr. administration adults or children and how does that fit into your contention? What about Bubba Clinton’s team – adults or children? After all, the NK situation was born out of Clinton’s nuclear “deal” with them, was it not?

      Please point to some “adults” in the foreign policy establishment over the last few decades. I’m genuinely curious whom you’ll pick.

    • Anthony

      ” We don’t need an pbtuse emphasis on ‘me first’! We need people who understand both the world and America’s interests at both the immediate and long-term levels. People who aren’t threatened by trade or by military power.” I think Anna Simmons in her essay above agrees and infers such, inter alia.

    • leoj

      I’m not sure you understand ‘sovereignty’ in the same way as Simon describes above. Having ‘more sovereignty’ in your sense sounds like the privilege of juris primae noctis. In fact, there hasn’t been an ’emphasis on sovereignty,’ as you claim, though our preeminence is readily apparent. I think she describes it well when she says: The more we try to be principled but non-judgmental, the more morally self-righteous but unprincipled we seem. I can’t imagine a better epitaph for Obama’s style of statesmanship. History speaks directly through Progressives, so who are they to judge. After all, who can believe such things happen in 2017! And if some demur regarding the judgment of History? Well, it’s good to be the king. This is certainly a type of sovereignty…

      Simon doesn’t really go into the issue of trade and economic nationalism. Her point about sovereignty seems essentially to come down to limits in the use of force in our relation to other sovereign states–limits for ourselves as for others. If this view could dispense in the first instance with the chimerical ‘international community,’ I would heartily endorse it.

      • D4x

        Simons seems to be selling her book. An interesting essay would analyze POTUS’ 09 19 2017 speech at the 72nd UN General Assembly as a clarion call for Positivity after so many decades of Negative Fear, or at least how 2017 ‘sovereignty’ sustains human communities of interest in the pursuit of security, prosperity, and peace.

        Instead, Simons reveals her implicit bias by not recognizing that President Trump HAS been implementing his foreign policy since day one, based on “…Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. …” Link, which Simons forgot to include:
        https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/09/19/remarks-president-trump-72nd-session-united-nations-general-assembly

        On June 26, PM Modi of India said this: “…President Trump, I thank you for your feelings of friendship towards India and myself. I deeply appreciate your strong commitment to the enhancement of our bilateral relations. I am sure that under your leadership, our mutually beneficial strategic partnership will gain new strength, new positivity, …”
        https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/06/26/remarks-president-trump-and-prime-minister-modi-india-joint-press

        I had never heard the word until Modi; and had to look it up, to see if it was a real word.
        Before that, I saw how Trump was framing problems with, as I struggled to see it: Positive Confidence, not the Negative Fear that breeds so much anxiety. At that point, Positivity became my Word of 2017.
        OED: The practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.

        Negative Fear is how we got so many laws and regulations, to protect us from everything, just in case, because the Precautionary Principle took root: “Regarding international conduct, the first endorsement of the principle was in 1982”
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

        • leoj

          Which word? Positivity? Sometimes fear is useful, depends on the situation. Example: Thalidomide. The FDA is not perfect, but better than nothing. In that instance, one could determine the relation between cause and effect quite directly. Assessment of risk (and hence the need for precaution) in more complex situations should affect the decision to impose regulations and laws. No argument there from me.

          • D4x

            Fixed that – yes, Positivity. Agree on thalidomide, but was thinking of more recent Negative Fear: Ebola, Zika, statues of Robert E. Lee, Climate Change!!!!!, Guns!, Russia!, Trump!, you can’t say that…

            All the dems do is Negative Fear-mongering, never anything Positive, especially since 2013.

  • Boritz

    The President said: “We do not expect diverse countries to share the same cultures, traditions, or even systems of government…”

    Well that’s just a blatantly anti EU statement and in alignment with the German far-right and the forces of brexit.

  • QET

    Wow, to think that one of the very few TAI articles discussing Trump not to deploy even in passing the usual CYA signal of “But of course we all know that Trump is patently unfit for the office and ought to resign immediately,” or one of its many variants, is a former speechwriter for a Democratic President, one hailed as the very model of a modern major left-liberal, whose evident failure to read Simons’ words on that fateful day of November 4, 1979, to heed and act on the Shootist Principle, is in no small part responsible for our present predicament!!

    • D4x

      Simons DID include the caveat: “But he needs to make the full case without contradiction and in measured tones.”
      Her entire essay is that ‘we (Carter) said it first and better, with credible conviction’. I add: and with convoluted language.

      An interesting essay would analyze POTUS’ 09 19 2017 speech at the 72nd UN General Assembly as a clarion call for Positivity after so many decades of Negative Fear, or at least how 2017 ‘sovereignty’ sustains human communities of interest in peace. Instead, Simons reveals her implicit bias by not recognizing that President Trump HAS been implementing his foreign policy since day one, based on “…Our success depends on a coalition of strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world. …”

      On June 26, PM Modi of India said this: “…President Trump, I thank you for your feelings of friendship towards India and myself. I deeply appreciate your strong commitment to the enhancement of our bilateral relations. I am sure that under your leadership, our mutually beneficial strategic partnership will gain new strength, new positivity, …” https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/06/26/remarks-president-trump-and-prime-minister-modi-india-joint-press

      I had never heard the word until Modi; and had to look it up, to see if it was a real word. Before that, I saw how Trump was framing problems with, as I struggled to see it: Positive Confidence, not the Negative Fear that breeds so much anxiety. At that point, Positivity became my Word of 2017. OED: The practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.

      Negative Fear is how we got so many laws and regulations, to protect us from everything, just in case, because the Precautionary Principle took root: “Regarding international conduct, the first endorsement of the principle was in 1982” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Precautionary_principle

  • FriendlyGoat

    “Meanwhile, if we take sovereignty seriously, we must acknowledge that other countries do have the right to develop whatever arsenals they choose.”

    We actually don’t take sovereignty that seriously with respect to nations led by those who are crazy. This is why nearly everyone who might like this article has been arguing for years-to-decades that we must not “let” either North Korea or Islamic Iran or any non-state actors have deliverable nuclear weapons. The only reasons we have not yet taken decisive preemptive action are 1) The costs of doing it are high in civilian lives to be lost, 2) The costs to Americans of doing it are unpredictable in ultimate outcome, 3) Doing it actually violates the “principle of sovereignty” we might be otherwise arguing for.

    Had we been given our “druthers”, the Soviet Union (now Russia), China and Pakistan—-at least—-would not have nuclear weapons. Those were accidents of history which, so far, have been “managed”, and rather precariously so through several presidents. Now we have the present manager, and in spite of people believing that his pugnacious manner is protective of them, it isn’t really. The risks are still the risks. Your guy has the appearance of looking for his Gulf of Tonkin Incident (and in more than one place). Don’t be surprised when he tells you he has found it.

  • Anthony

    Splendid essay – strategic and clear in more nuanced ways than meets first read.

    A few insights:

    “While one thing his victory and that of other populists should make clear is that 21st century fears have totally outstripped Washington’s ability to make the world feel sufficiently safe to hundreds of millions of Americans.” (Anna Simmons)

    “When the public can’t know what to expect if certain events occur, conspiracy theorists and political opportunists will fill the vacuum.” (Anna Simmons)

    “As it is, we are living with rampant fear-mongering, and are also showing ourselves to be increasingly divisible. That makes us vulnerable to manipulation, and worse. Consequently, we need something we Americans can collectively agree to stand for – something that binds us together and distinguishes us from others but not in such a way as to rub our sense of exceptionalism in other’s faces.” (Anna Simmons)

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