By Troy Stangarone
As President Donald Trump addressed the United Nations General Assembly for the first time he asserted the need for a strong role for national sovereignty in international relations, but also called on the United Nations to resolve the now imminent threat from North Korea. While the ideas of sovereignty and international cooperation need not be in contradiction with each other, the potential tension between the two raises questions about the future approach to resolving the crisis with North Korea, as does President Trump’s suggestion that he might walk away from the nuclear deal with Iran.
In his remarks to the UN General Assembly, President Trump laid out a potentially interesting definition of sovereignty, but one that the administration likely needs to flesh out and clarify. In Trump’s view sovereign nations have “two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation.” This definition is in tension with the more established definition of sovereignty from the Treaty of Westphalia that defined sovereignty as the right of states to rule over their territory without interference from other states. There is no expectation for the state to act in the interest of its own people.
In essence, President Trump has augmented the idea of non-interference in the affairs of other states with the idea of the state having a duty to look after the interests of its people and takes a more limited view of modern day multilateralism. In his remarks, President Trump makes clear that the United States does not seek to impose its form of government on others, so the obligations of the state to its people are not tied to a form of government, but rather whether that government is working in the interests of its people.
However, President Trump also seems to suggest that if a state is not meeting its obligations to its population it does not maintain the second aspect of sovereignty – the obligation of other states not to interfere in its internal affairs. In the modern era, the idea of a more malleable version of sovereignty is not uncommon. The European Union functions on the concept of pooling sovereignty to collectively achieve a higher purpose and, hence, accepts a degree of interference in the authority of the state. Or, perhaps more in the context of the United Nations there is the concept of the Responsibility to Protect, where UN member states take on a responsibility to intervene in the affairs of other states to preclude genocide, ethnic cleansing, and other war crimes. It seems unlikely that President Trump wanted to lay out such an expansive concept of the ability of states to intervene in the affairs other states, but in assigning the interests of citizens as one of the duties of states President Trump does seem to be laying out groundwork for when states have failed in their duties and lost their sovereignty.
While President Trump’s remark that the United States was prepared to “totally destroy North Korea” if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, less attention has been given to his remark that this is exactly the type of problem that the United Nations was designed to resolve. However, his approach to sovereignty seems to make a stronger case for the United Nations to take action on the issue of North Korea due to the regime in Pyongyang’s failure to look after the interests of its citizens rather than the dangers of its nuclear program. While there is clear international consensus that North Korea’s weapons programs are a danger to international peace and security, the emphasis on citizens interests and lack of clarity on where the rights of nations ends potentially complicates dealing with North Korea as it raises questions about whether resolving the nuclear issue is sufficient.
If President Trump’s use of sovereignty potentially complicates collective action on North Korea, his suggestion that the United States might not remain in the nuclear deal with Iran does as well. The Iran deal has been suggested as a potential framework for a deal with North Korea. While Pyongyang has rejected such an arrangement, it does likely represent the starting point for both sides to think about a potential solution. Pyongyang will likely seek a more generous arrangement than what Iran received, while the concerns expressed by the Trump Administration suggest that it would seek an agreement that addressed more issues than merely North Korea’s weapons programs.
However, getting to that point requires finding the political space to negotiate an agreement that would stop North Korea’s weapons development and roll back its capabilities, which has long been the goal of increased UN sanctions. To work, the United States needs to have credibility as a negotiating partner to achieve a negotiated outcome. Leaving the deal with Iran would raise questions about the credibility of the United States in any negotiations with North Korea, but would also reinforce the idea that any deal reached with the United States could simply be changed by any future U.S. administration.
It would also potentially complicate cooperation with states in the region. Any successful agreement requires the continued cooperation of China and Russia to maintain pressure on North Korea. If the United States is not viewed as a credible partner by Beijing in reigning in North Korea’s behavior, it lessens the incentives for China to maintain pressure on North Korea to enter into talks and for all sides to abide by any agreements reached.
In many ways, President Trump’s speech at the United Nations was not a provocative as many have suggested. While President Trump is known for using stronger language than prior U.S. presidents, his suggestion that the United States would forcefully retaliate against North Korean aggression is not inconsistent with prior U.S. administrations and his call for the UN to resolve the crisis have been underplayed. However, his own remarks also raise questions about achieving those ends. Does his vision of sovereignty and a state’s obligations to its citizens suggest greater change in North Korea than many other states may be looking for? Will the administration’s actions towards the Iran nuclear deal undermine efforts to reach a deal with North Korea? These are two key questions which the administration needs to flesh out to avoid creating contradictions in its own policies.
Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs at the Korea Economic Institute of America. A version of this article in Chinese also appeared in Dunjiaodu.com. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
Photo from United Nations Photo’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.