American Sovereignty Is Safe From the UN

Time to Focus on the Real Threats

Trump addresses the UN General Assembly in New York, September 2018. Carlo Allegri / REUTERS

The United States has less reason to worry about its sovereignty than any other country in the world. No other country enjoys as much freedom from external interference—military, economic, or diplomatic. Which is why other national leaders find it perplexing that U.S. presidents addressing the United Nations invariably find it necessary to proclaim yet again that they will never allow any arrogation of U.S. sovereignty. 

“We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable, global bureaucracy,” U.S. President Donald Trump declared this week in his second UN General Assembly speech. “America is governed by Americans.” He was hardly the first U.S. president to make the point. George H. W. Bush put it positively in his 1991 address to the General Assembly, seeing international institutions as an asset in service of an international order “in which no nation must surrender one iota of its own sovereignty.” George W. Bush had a UN ambassador—John Bolton, now Trump’s national security adviser—famous for his fierce defense of sovereignty. Even Barack Obama, despite his reputation for openness to global cooperation and multilateralism, strongly defended U.S. sovereignty in his 2013 address at the UN: “Different nations will not agree on the need for action in every instance, and the principle of sovereignty is at the center of our international order.”  

What’s so strange about this repeated message, and the underlying anxiety it reflects, is not just that there is in reality so little threat to U.S. sovereignty. It’s that to the extent there is a threat, it comes not from international institutions and agreements but from other sovereign states, as well as from rapid technological advances that are changing the relative power of state and nonstate actors, companies, and groups. There’s a real debate to be had about how to protect sovereignty in the twenty-first century; it’s just not this debate. 


To get a sense of how odd the U.S. obsession with

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