Article originally published in the Indianapolis Star
By Robert Weiner and Michael Hariman
At the National Press Club in Washington, former Indiana Senator and foreign policy icon, former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Richard Lugar, in an interview last week, conveyed some thoughts on Trump's UN speech and overall foreign policy: "The tone is something to pursue. When you are looking at the faces of world leaders, you should consider the impact."
Lugar understood that while Trump's substance often has merit, Trump's attitude has hurt his objectives. Bluster and bullying may work for Republican primaries, but not for the international community. Trump's speech was essentially his domestic agenda reframed for an international audience, with the message: Marshall Plan (ie we'll help you) for allies, Monroe Doctrine (you're on your own) for everyone else.
Twenty-one times, Trump mentioned the word "sovereign" or "sovereignty." However, his definition for the term remains contentious and contradictory. In general, sovereignty refers to a nation-state's right to enjoy supremacy within its borders and the ability to act independently and autonomously on the world stage.
For allies, he advocates a return to the pre-globalization era, before sovereignty and borders were blurred by interconnectedness. His allusion to the Marshall Plan refers to a time when countries still operated as distinctly independent units, without supranational organizations such as the European Union. Alliances formed were not obligations to some charter of an international organization, but rather expressions of state interest, which reflects Trump's idea of "strong and independent nations that embrace their sovereignty to promote security, prosperity, and peace for themselves and for the world."
For enemies, however, Trump throws out sovereignty entirely. Although North Korea and Iran are both sovereign nations, Trump believes they consistently violate treaties and international law, and conform to few international norms. Disparaged by Trump as rogue regimes and "the scourge of our planet", their policies and values are as divergent from a US ally as can be. For Trump, sovereignty is a privilege granted only to countries friendly and with similar values to the US while denied to countries that harm US interests and reject international norms, which are inherently Western values. Essentially, Trump frames his new world order as a battle between the civilized, western world whose sovereignty he respects against the nonconforming barbarians, which are rogue regimes, whose sovereignty he disregards.
Secretary off State Rex Tillerson brings temperance to Trump's foreign policy. Lauded by Sen. Robert Corker (R-TN) as someone "keeping the country from chaos", Tillerson represents a counterbalance to Trump's brinkmanship diplomacy. During the October 4 press conference, Tillerson never repeated Trump's bluster towards North Korea, neither did Tillerson echo Trump's suggestion to reverse the Iran non-proliferation deal. On Trump's criticisms over Pakistan, Tillerson seemingly backtracked, noting how important US-Pakistan relations are. Tillerson did, however, parallel Trump's desire to improve relations with India, begun during the Obama era, to tackle Afghanistan. That day, Tillerson vocalized support for none of Trump's more controversial policies, advocating conventional foreign policy wisdom at every turn.
Although Trump's rhetoric illustrates a new world order where you either get on board with the US or get out, Tillerson's conference showed how common sense still exists in the White House orbit, even if it is absent in the Oval Office. With Trump's unpredictability, flamboyant rhetoric and tweets in a dangerous world, Lugar's guidance on tone is more important than ever for the administration, the world -- and Trump himself.
Robert Weiner is a former Clinton White House spokesman and spokesman for the House Government Operations Committee. He was senior staff for Congressmen Ed Koch, Charles Rangel, Claude Pepper, and John Conyers, Jr. Michael Hariman is foreign policy analyst at Weiner Public News and Solutions for Change.