Applying International Relations Theory to President Trump’s Address to the U.N. General Assembly

United States President Donald Trump’s address to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly echoes realist international relations theory, to the extent of emphasizing United States’ military dominance as a prime source of state power and the need to neutralize threatening states in global society; however, much of his realist sentiments conflict with a liberal theory that encourages political collaboration for collective security between all 193 United Nations representatives and stresses the necessity of that cooperation as a means to overcome anarchy. In the constructivist tradition, Trump cautions against adversaries like North Korea by estranging the ‘other’ from the ‘self’ and by focusing on the behavior and social identity of nations in shaping the international nature of anarchy.

In keeping with a realist outlook on the role of the United Nations and of America in international affairs, Trump frequently stresses the power of the American state through its military might. He notes towards the beginning of his speech that America will be “spending almost $700 billion on [its] military and defense” and fortifying the army to an unprecedented level.[1] According to the Peter G. Peterson Foundation, the United States spent $611 billion on defense in 2016, compared to the $595 billion that the next eight countries, including China and Russia, spent combined.[2] John Mearsheimer’s theory of offensive realism explains a state’s desire for offensive military power as a means of survival. Great powers serve as rational actors, and as such, seek power maximization and security.[3] This security relies upon a state’s self-determination and self-help which derives mainly from defensive capabilities. In fact, the incredible amount of military spending attests to the idea of relative power, wherein a state measures power in comparison to other states.[4] Obviously, the president intends to remind the other U.N. states in attendance of that very power the United States holds through its defense.

Highlighting the necessity of states’ self-preservation, a tenet of realist theory, Trump observes that he will “always put America first” and “defend America’s interests above all else.”[5] According to Waltz’s neorealist theory, each state’s primary interest remains its own protection and well-being. The self-help system aims to enhance power and security and may only be done so with the state foremost serving itself.[6] While the president does emphasize self-determination, he also argues that each state represented in the U.N. should cooperate to overcome conflict and seek a peaceful future for all. In essence, competition between these states would only deter security intentions.[7] This realist collegial policy thus conflicts with the liberal emphasis on cooperation wherein conflict can be avoided. Still, Trump focuses on the U.S.’s militant pursuits, such as in the Middle East and Asia, and warns states like North Korea against the “vast military power of the United States.”[8] The president adds that the U.S. will ensue defense operations against antagonistic countries, namely Afghanistan, as a means of consolidating state security. He thus furthers realist theory through messages to these potentially threatening states by drawing upon the security dilemma, which refers to an anarchic situation wherein a state takes an action to increase its security leading to other states to similarly retaliate, heightening intra-state tensions.[9]

President Trump bolsters the security dilemma throughout his speech by stressing the U.N.’s need to protect themselves against the “group of rogue regimes” and eliminate the rising power of the “forces of destruction.”[10] He specifically calls out North Korea for its development of nuclear weapons and constantly accentuates this implicit threat. Though the U.S. does not consider North Korea an ally, Trump affirms the inherent mistrust of the East Asian nation due to its ambiguous, yet destructive, intentions. The intense nature of the environment leads to a heightened security dilemma with minimal cooperation potential between the U.S. and North Korea.[11] Unless totalitarian North Korea cedes nuclearization, Trump threatens the absolute destruction of the country. He obliquely claims, “the United States is ready, willing and able” to take necessary actions.[12] The president accents militant exercise only as a last measure, but still the notion of anarchy and the heightened security dilemma seem to invigorate an inevitable end through conflict. Nonetheless, Trump ultimately hopes to restore North Korea to a status-quo state wherein international law and the international system uphold respect.[13]

This same portion of the speech also underscores a strongly constructivist perspective by allowing North Korea ownership of its own political reconstruction. Despite pledging military action in the region, Trump leaves the fate of North Korea to the hope of its social reconstruction. In essence, the current state of anarchy does not have an inevitable and deterministic impact on the behavior of states. While a realist may argue that states behave a certain way because of anarchy and liberalists may dispute that anarchy may be overcome through collaboration, here Trump frames the state of anarchy around the power of diffusion. North Korea, seeking to maintain an image of self-reliance through nuclearization, formulates its state’s identity in relation to other nations. Via a constructivist perspective, successful diffusion of North Korea in the eyes of the U.N. means that its current constructed state of authoritarianism must be transformed to the sanctioned Western political model. North Korea’s authoritarian regime requires that Kim Jong-un serve a vital role in this reconstruction. He must be willing to compromise his own state’s desirable image, and possibly risk his state’s security through denuclearization, in order to submit to Western states. Therefore, in line with the role of the individual in constructivist theory, the human actor here has the potential to shape state behavior and alter the anarchic state.[14]

Similarly, Trump reiterates the U.S.’s refusal to lift sanctions on the Cuban government and thus further leans towards a social constructivist alienation of the self from the other. American ‘exceptionalism’ fostered by its ‘duty’ to guide lesser, that is to say non-democratic, states has plagued U.S.-Cuban relations since the 1898 Treaty of Paris.[15] In short, the current state of affairs between the two states results from a series of social interactions, stemming from philosophical differences, that has led each to construct an identity as the other.[16] These identities, according to Reus-Smith, directly influence a state’s actions.[17] From the United States’ perspective, Trump plays into the theory by casting Cuba as the ‘other’ and maintaining U.S. sanctions on the South American state until Cuba produces governmental changes that sufficiently inherit U.S. ideology.

Stressed by republican liberalism, the power of alliances testifies to how states may overcome barriers to cooperation, such as the security dilemma. This departure from power politics accompanies states’ shared interest in harmony and global security. Trump comments on the necessity of shared understanding for collaboration despite diversity of primary interests between states. This mutual respect would, fundamentally, allow for a united global community to coexist under a common goal of “dignity and peace for the people.”[18] Consequently, in accordance with Immanuel Kant’s liberal ideas of reciprocated respect, the U.N. can promote healthy intra-state relationships and in return combat threats to the collective security posed by states like socialist Venezuela that do not share the same standards of sovereignty as most of the democratic U.N. representatives.[19]

While realists enunciate the role of military power, liberalists point to economics as another main source of state power. Trump advocates this perspective by indicating the drop in U.S. unemployment, the increase in recently unprecedented job growth, and rise of the ‘forgotten’ middle class. The president therefore reminds the U.N. of America’s predominance in the economic arena and of the United States’ 22% contribution to the U.N. budget that exceeds the input of any other nation.[20] By doing so, the president leverages the U.S. benefaction to encourage cooperation against states that threaten both the U.S. and other U.N. nations. Fundamentally, he uses economic influence to mitigate the security dilemma.[21] Trump, for instance, follows these remarks about the state’s commercial domination with concerns about the ongoing conflicts in South America, particularly in Cuba and Venezuela, and urges the U.N. to help restore sovereignty in the region. Furthering the Kantian perspective, Trump focuses on the trade interdependence of the U.S. with other Latin American nations and notes that this “economic bond forms a critical foundation for advancing peace and prosperity.”[22] To provide cooperation across states, Trump bargains economically to seek compromise within states; collective security, therefore, resides in part in intra-state trade that economically strengthens each independent nation.

President Trump moreover propounds the vitality of inter- and non-governmental institutions, both domestic and international, in achieving global security. He lauds medical initiatives like PEPFAR and applauds countries like Russia and China for imposing sanctions on Cuba. Trump thereby accents the U.N.’s divergence from anarchy through cooperative institutions, a creed of neoliberal philosophy.[23] In essence, these varied collaborations accentuate the mutual benefits of security via international cooperation. The stress upon these organizations likewise attests to the importance of political actors, like IGO’s or even the terrorist groups that Trump continually condemns, in shaping state policies. For example, in order to face the “rogue regimes” that Trump mentions, states like the U.S. must enhance security policies to ensure sovereignty in their own states. The war on terror also leads Western states to push for democracy in regimes like North Korea and call for an end to terror groups that continually intimidate the status-quo. The state, thereby, does not in and of itself control international power politics but rather shapes its policies to also account for actions of non-state political actors.[24]

Although President Trump’s remarks to the United Nations contain an extent of realist sentiments, liberal and constructivist theory do not lose focus and often conflict with proposed ideas of realism throughout the speech. Nevertheless, Trump voices a need for unification in a time when adversary states endanger the status-quo and the power of the collective to establish a global security that ensures state sovereignty in a peaceful global regime. Although passionate in words, only time will tell how and by what liberal or realist methods the United States and its accompanying U.N. members will assuage the threats to the international system.

 

[1] Trump, Donald J. 2017. “Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly.” United Nations, New York, NY. 19 Sept. 2017.

[2] “U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries.” Peter G. Peterson Foundation. 4 Feb. 2015.

[3] Mearsheimer, John. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” Excerpts from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton. 2001. pp. 29-54. In Mingst and Snyder. 2014. pp. 45.

[4] Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 2010. pp. 82.

[5] Trump.

[6] Waltz, pp. 57.

[7] Glaser, Charles L. “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help.” International Security 19, no. 3. 1994. pp. 51. doi:10.2307/2539079.

[8] Trump.

[9] Jervis, Robert. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2. 1978. pp. 169.

[10] Trump.

[11] Jervis, pp. 201.

[12] Trump.

[13] Randall L. Schweller, “Neorealism’s status‐quo bias: What security dilemma?”, Security Studies, 5:3. 1996. pp. 92.

[14] Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics.” International Organization 46 (2), 1992, pp. 391-425. In Mingst and Snyder. 2014. pp. 81.

[15] A Treaty of Peace Between the United States and Spain. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. 1899.

[16] Ruggie, John Gerard. “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge.” International Organization 52, no. 4. 1998. pp. 879.

[17] Reus-Smith, Christian, Constructivism in Scott Burchill, et al., Theories of International Relations, 4th ed., London. 2009. pp. 221.

[18] Trump.

[19] Kant, Immanuel, “To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Available at Constitution.org. 1795.

[20] Trump.

[21]  Oneal, John R., and Bruce Russett, “The Kantian Peace: The Pacific Benefits of Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992.” World Politics, 52 (1). 1999. pp. 4.

[22] Ibid, pp. 13; Trump.

[23] Nye, Joseph S., and Robert O. Keohane. “Transnational Relations and World Politics: An Introduction.” International Organization 25, no. 3. 1971. pp. 336.

[24] Rosenau, James N. Turbulence in World Politics: a Theory of Change and Continuity. Princeton University Press. 1990.

 

Bibliography

Glaser, Charles L. “Realists as Optimists: Cooperation as Self-Help.” International Security 19, 3. 1994. pp. 50-90. doi:10.2307/2539079.

Jervis, Robert. “Cooperation Under the Security Dilemma.” World Politics 30, no. 2. 1978. pp. 167-214. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2009958.

Kant, Immanuel. “To Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch.” Available at Constitution.org. 1795. http://www.constitution.org/kant/perpeace.htm.

Nye, Joseph S., and Robert O. Keohane. “Transnational Relations and World Politics: An Introduction.” International Organization 25, no. 3. 1971. pp. 329-49. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2706043.

Mearsheimer, John. “Anarchy and the Struggle for Power.” Excerpts from The Tragedy of Great Power Politics. New York: Norton. 2001. pp. 29-54. In Mingst and Snyder. 2014. pp. 37- 56.

Oneal, John R., and Bruce Russett. “The Kantian Peace: The Pacific Benefits of Democracy, Interdependence, and International Organizations, 1885-1992.” World Politics 52 (1). 1999. pp. 1-37.

Randall L. Schweller. Neorealism’s status‐quo bias: What security dilemma?, Security Studies, 5:3. 1996. pp. 90-121, DOI: 10.1080/09636419608429277.

Reus-Smith, Christian Constructivism in Scott Burchill, et al., Theories of International Relations, 4th ed., London. 2009. pp. 212-236.

Rosenau, James N. Turbulence in World Politics: a Theory of Change and Continuity. Princeton University Press. 1990.

Ruggie, John Gerard. “What Makes the World Hang Together? Neo-Utilitarianism and the Social Constructivist Challenge.” International Organization 52, no. 4. 1998. pp. 855-85. http://www.jstor.org/stable/2601360.

Trump, Donald J. “Remarks by President Trump to the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly.” United Nations, New York, NY. 19 Sept. 2017. Online at https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/09/19/remarks-president-trump-72nd-sessionunited-nations-general-assembly.

“U.S. Defense Spending Compared to Other Countries.” Peter G. Peterson Foundation, 4 Feb. 2015. http://www.pgpf.org/chart-archive/0053_defense-comparison.

Waltz, Kenneth. Theory of International Politics. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press, Inc. 2010.

Wendt, Alexander. “Anarchy is What States Make of It: The Social Construction of Power Politics. International Organization 46 (2): 391-425. 1992. In Mingst and Snyder. 2014. pp. 73-97.

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