President Trump’s speech to the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday rejected more than 70 years of American historical experience. Although the speech repeated the phrase “national interest,” it extolled a swaggering, primal ethno-racial assertiveness that echoed the hyper-nationalist militarism of two world wars: “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy. America is governed by Americans. We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” Still more chilling for those recalling twentieth-century conflicts, the president also boasted that “our military will soon be more powerful than it has ever been before. In other words, the United States is stronger, safer, and a richer country than it was when I assumed office less than two years ago. We are standing up for America and the American people.”
The implication here is that globalism—and the United Nations itself—run counter to U.S. interests. In fact, most of the history of the past century suggests otherwise. Far from hemming in U.S. capabilities, globalism and international institutions have worked incredibly well in furthering American international objectives. And that’s probably why previous American presidents worked so hard to establish them.
President Franklin Roosevelt promoted the idea of a United Nations before the United States entered the Second World War. Meeting with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill off the coast of Newfoundland on August 14, 1941, Roosevelt conditioned American military support for London on an international commitment to “common principles” for the allied countries. Those principles included disarmament, territorial security, open trade, improved conditions for working and retired citizens, and a “wider and permanent system of general security.”
Less than five months later, the leaders of twenty-four other nations joined Roosevelt and Churchill in signing the “Joint Declaration of the United Nations on Cooperation for Victory.” They pledged their shared efforts to defeat fascism and design a new international system that protects “human rights and justice.” They promised to work together for a common vision and mutual gains, insured by agreed principles of peaceful behavior. Under American leadership, the allies signed a charter on June 26, 1945, creating a bricks-and-mortar United Nations Organization in the last days of the Second World War. The charter was ratified in the United States and fifty other founding member states as a binding treaty, becoming a cornerstone of international law.
The U.N. charter opened with an aspirational mission to “save succeeding generations from the scourge of war.” Signatories pledged “to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security” and “to employ international machinery for the economic and social advancement of all peoples.” The twenty-page document then went on to design the institutions that would carry out this cooperative global mission, including the General Assembly (where Trump spoke on Tuesday), the Security Council, and the International Court of Justice.
The existence of a United Nations, with strong American support, transformed international relations after 1945. First, the General Assembly, the Security Council, and the Office of the General Secretary became primary venues for mediating international disputes. This began with the earliest debates about the regulation of atomic materials in 1946 and included intensive negotiations over the future of Palestine, Berlin, Cuba, Vietnam, and many other sites of the Cold War conflict. Many like to think of the UN as feckless, but the reality is that without the U.N.-assisted negotiations between adversaries during these crises, larger wars would surely have erupted, as they did before the U.N.’s creation.
Once adversaries reached settlements, the U.N. frequently recruited and managed peacekeepers who provided neutral enforcement. From the Sinai Desert to the Congo, and to Haiti and beyond, the U.N. has conducted more than seventy peacekeeping operations since its founding, fifteen of which are still active. It’s easy to forget what a radical idea international peacekeeping forces—one of the great peacemaking innovations of the twentieth century—represent, historically.
The United Nations also quickly emerged as a coordinating and information-sharing body between states. From transportation and trade to health and the environment, U.N. agencies pooled crucial knowledge across nations, set norms for mutually beneficial behavior, and created basic regulations, including standards for safety and coordination across such varied fields as air travel, shipping, and immigration. The International Civil Aviation Organization, the World Health Organization, and the International Atomic Energy Agency are three examples of the many U.N. offices that have facilitated safe and prosperous interactions across nations.
Finally, the United Nations has been one of the most powerful advocates for human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed by the General Assembly on December 10, 1948, established basic principles for the treatment of all humans across the globe, with associated obligations for governments. Although the enforcement of these principles has been inconsistent, they have created a set of common expectations that discipline national actors and empower dissident voices. They also create a common language for cooperation among culturally diverse peoples. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, inspired additional efforts to protect vulnerable citizens, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1965), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (1979), and the Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989). Activist organizations working across societies, especially Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have used these U.N. documents to mobilize diverse citizens and build vibrant networks for influencing government policies.
American-led efforts at international cooperation through the United Nations have not always succeeded, and have often been self-serving. They have, however, contributed to the peace and prosperity that Trump emphasized repeatedly in his Tuesday speech. Without the United Nations—and America’s leading commitment to it—the period since 1945 would have been marked by vastly more war, economic dislocation, and personal suffering than it in fact saw. Without the United Nations, the United States would also have paid a higher price for its security, as well as the spread of its ideas and interests. Put simply: Cooperation saves money—along with many other resources, including lives.
Trashing “globalism” and asserting national greatness, as Trump did on Tuesday, only hurts U.S. interests in the end. The United States and its closest allies have enjoyed the peace and prosperity Trump extolled in part because of the United Nations, which frequently served as a vehicle for the principles the U.S. wished to propagate. “Globalism,” in this sense, is a necessary foundation for what Trump calls “patriotism” in the contemporary world. When Samuel Johnson published a critique of false patriotism in 1774, he wrote that “the true lover of his country is ready to communicate his fears,” but “sounds no alarm when there is no enemy.” Hearing the president’s ethno-nationalist militarism on display at the U.N. this week, Johnson would likely have appreciated the irony of an ignorant demagogue attacking his country’s international assets.