OPINION: Trump at the UN Flirts With Responsible Realism

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By John Zmirak, a Senior Editor of The Stream, Sept. 20, 2017

President Trump’s speech Tuesday at the United Nations was a mixed bag. It contained many solid, useful observations that bear the mark of sober, prudent thinking. It also contained some time bombs we need to defuse before they explode. But before we pick up the packages that are ticking, let’s start with what’s useful and good.

I’ve written here before of the need for conservatives to consider at once both the Golden Egg and the Goose. The Golden Egg is liberty, the principles that uphold it, and its broad implications for how we should run our country. The Goose is our actual country, with its history (warts and all). Its interests and health must come first. A dead Goose lays no eggs. But a Goose that lays rotten eggs, such as tyranny or bigotry, doesn’t deserve much loyalty. We need both, which means staying balanced.

A Time for Balance and Prudence

American thought on freedom and nationhood has been mostly unbalanced for decades. The left promoted a set of absolutized abstractions about human rights (not duties). So the neoconservative right responded with its own set of ringing abstractions. In fact, some viewed America itself as an ideological outfit, like Jacobin France or Bolshevik Russia — a country that exists to serve its creed instead of its citizens. To spread that creed around the world, by force if need be. So we guarded borders in Iraq but not on the Rio Grande. The concrete defense of our nation’s interest and history ended up on the margins. Some of those margins decayed and formed a fever swamp, and that’s where the Alt-Right festers.

With Trump in office, it stopped being possible to ignore moderate, sane nationalists like Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon, and Stephen Miller. Of course, two of those three are out of the White House now. Some of Trump’s core backers worry. This speech shows the influence of this moderate, realist faction. And it bears large thumbprints of the GOP establishment, which is still hooked on abstractions that goad some to try to micromanage the planet.

Defending the Nation State

In the context of the U.N., the Goose stands for national sovereignty. Trump’s speech did an admirable job of sticking up for the Goose. He said repeatedly in stirring words that the nation-state is the best (and often the only) means of protecting people’s rights. Destabilizing nation-states is reckless and wicked. That’s true whether it happens through mass immigration, globalist power-grabs, or oligarchies that steal nations’ sovereignty, such as the European Union — or its closest predecessor in recent history, the Warsaw Pact. Trump spoke to such facts:

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.

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. This is the beautiful vision of this institution, and this is foundation for cooperation and success.

If we desire to lift up our citizens, if we aspire to the approval of history, then we must fulfill our sovereign duties to the people we faithfully represent. We must protect our nations, their interests, and their futures.

So far, so good.

Confronting North Korea

And Trump was right to confront the unhinged regime in North Korea with the bluntest kind of threat:

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.

Whatever our Christian consciences tell us about the evils of strategic bombing aimed at civilians, facts are facts. The only thing that constrained the Soviet Union from using its massive military superiority to conquer Western Europe was exactly this kind of threat. I could not have pushed the button to nuke all those helpless citizens in Kiev and Moscow, had Soviet tanks crossed the Elbe. But nothing but the fear of that would have deterred someone like Stalin. It just barely restrained Chairman Mao, who along with Fidel Castro welcomed the prospect of nuclear war, as long as it destroyed capitalism.

North Korea’s regime has placed its key military assets so close to population centers, so that the “minimum force” needed to stop it from slaughtering everyone in Seoul (or Tokyo, or Honolulu) might be devastating to North Korea’s civilians. As a result, “total destruction” in that case might even pass “just war” tests. Let’s pray, really pray, to avoid that historic tragedy.

Are “Rogue Nations” the Real Threat?

But Trump’s speech veered off course soon after. He’d rightly identified sovereignty and nationhood as crucial goods for order and freedom. He noted that they are in danger. But his diagnosis of what threatens them could have been put together by a group of George W. Bush speech writers in 2003. And that is dangerously unbalanced.

This speech shows the influence of moderate, realist thinking. And it bears large thumbprints of the GOP establishment, which is still hooked on abstractions that goad some to try to micromanage the planet.

Yes, Iran is a bad regime. It supports terrorists. But why single it out and not mention other equally repressive regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which also support terrorists? It’s Sunni countries like the latter that have spurred civil war in Syria — aiming to make it a jihadist state. Then they refused to take the refugees that civil war created, instead building mosques for them in Paris and Frankfurt. No Iran-backed Shiites, but rather Sunnis in al Qaeda with links in very high Saudi places attacked us on 9/11. That’s whom we fight in Afghanistan. There is no reason for the U.S. to blatantly take sides in the Sunni/Shiite conflict. A sane, prudent foreign policy would seek a balance between them. We’d play off one side against the other.

It’s true that Trump said, “It is time to expose and hold responsible those countries who support and finance terror groups like al Qaeda, Hezbollah, the Taliban and others that slaughter innocent people.” But then he didn’t do that. He only named as bad actors Syria and Iran — though a few months ago the Turks attacked Syrian Christians allied with the Kurds. The Saudis butchered hundreds  of Shiites in Bahrain. Sunni zealots still oppress Christians in Sudan. Why side with the branch of Islam that gave us ISIS and al Qaeda? Why mire ourselves in this quagmire?

Rogue regimes are a threat to peace and order. But they’re not the central threat to sovereignty and hence freedom. For that you must look to the ideologues who support de facto open borders for Western countries. And the imams and leftist demagogues whose interests they serve.


John Zmirak is a Senior Editor of The Stream, and author of the new Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. He received his B.A. from Yale University in 1986, then his M.F.A. in screenwriting and fiction and his Ph.D. in English in 1996 from Louisiana State University. His focus was the English Renaissance, and the novels of Walker Percy. He taught composition at LSU and screenwriting at Tulane University, and has written screenplays for and with director Ronald Maxwell (Gods & Generals and Gettysburg). He was elected alternate delegate to the 1996 Republican Convention, representing Pat Buchanan.

He has been Press Secretary to pro-life Louisiana Governor Mike Foster, and a reporter and editor at Success magazine and Investor’s Business Daily, among other publications. His essays, poems, and other works have appeared in First Things, The Weekly Standard, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, USA Today, FrontPage Magazine, The American Conservative, The South Carolina Review, Modern Age, The Intercollegiate Review, Commonweal, and The National Catholic Register, among other venues. He has contributed to American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia and The Encyclopedia of Catholic Social Thought. From 2000-2004 he served as Senior Editor of Faith & Family magazine and a reporter at The National Catholic Register. During 2012 he was editor of Crisis.

He is author, co-author, or editor of eleven books, including Wilhelm Ropke: Swiss Localist, Global Economist, The Grand Inquisitor (graphic novel) and The Race to Save Our Century. He was editor of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s guide to higher education, Choosing the Right College and Collegeguide.org, for ten years, and is also editor of Disorientation: How to Go to College Without Losing Your Mind.