Landing Zone | 3.23.18
By Alan W. Dowd

President Donald Trump has released a new National Security Strategy (NSS) outlining his views on the security challenges facing the United States – and how his administration plans to address them. Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the document is its emphasis on and commitment to U.S. sovereignty.

Trump’s NSS mentions some variant of “sovereignty” 24 times (most related to U.S. sovereignty and the sovereignty of U.S. allies). President Barack Obama’s first NSS, by comparison, mentioned some variant of “sovereignty” just nine times (many related to postwar Iraq’s sovereignty); President George W. Bush’s first NSS, only twice.

In an age characterized by integrated international trade, multinational corporations, transnational terrorism, supranational organizations (the United Nations, European Union and International Criminal Court), and global information networks that are oblivious to borders, sovereignty – the notion that a nation-state has the right, responsibility, capacity and will to determine what happens within and on its borders – seems almost quaint. But it pays to recall that sovereignty has served as the very foundation of international order for centuries. Trump seems intent on reasserting the importance of sovereignty in the defense and promotion of U.S. interests – and in the maintenance of some semblance of international order.


Trump’s focus on sovereignty has been part of his presidency from the very beginning. His inaugural address, for instance, defended “the right of all nations to put their own interests first” and argued that America “must protect our borders.”

A month later, his speech to a joint session of Congress vowed to “respect the … rights of all nations” so long as they “respect our rights as a nation also.”

In Poland last July, Trump noted that “Americans, Poles and the nations of Europe value individual freedom and sovereignty.” And he argued that “a strong alliance of free, sovereign and independent nations” is “the best defense for our freedoms and for our interests.”

During his U.N. speech last September, he noted that the United Nations was founded on the notion that “diverse nations could cooperate to protect their sovereignty, preserve their security and promote their prosperity.” He also urged nations to “embrace their sovereignty,” explained that his administration would “expect all nations to uphold these two core sovereign duties: to respect the interests of their own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation,” argued that “strong, sovereign nations allow individuals to flourish in the fullness of the life intended by God,” called on the United Nations become “an effective partner in confronting threats to sovereignty, security and prosperity,” and bluntly declared that America is “renewing” what he described as the “founding principle of sovereignty” – that “our government’s first duty is to its people.”

During his address before the National Assembly of Korea last November, Trump praised the United States and ROK as “nations that respect our citizens, cherish our liberty, treasure our sovereignty and control our own destiny.”

In his address to the APEC Summit in November, he declared that organizations like the World Trade Organization “can only function properly when all members follow the rules and respect the sovereign rights of every member.” He warned that America “will no longer … enter into large agreements that tie our hands, surrender our sovereignty and make meaningful enforcement practically impossible.” And he promised that his administration “will never ask our partners to surrender their sovereignty.”

In December, the president criticized past policies that “surrendered our sovereignty to foreign bureaucrats in faraway and distant capitals” and reiterated his support for “strong, sovereign and independent nations that respect their citizens and respect their neighbors.”

That brings us back to Trump’s NSS, which argues that key to addressing the threats America faces is “a world of strong, sovereign and independent nations” -- and most pointedly a strong, sovereign and independent America.

The Trump NSS flatly declares his administration is committed to “defending America’s sovereignty without apology,” “strengthening our sovereignty,” defending “our sovereign right to determine who should enter our country,” and resisting movements that “undermine sovereign governments.” Toward that end, Trump’s NSS vows to help “partner states … confront nonstate threats and strengthen their sovereignty,” “help South Asian nations maintain their sovereignty,” collaborate with “the NATO alliance of free and sovereign states … to protect our mutual interests, sovereignty and values,” ensure that “sovereign African states … are integrated into the world economy,” and confront China, which has “expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.”

And the document puts supranational organizations on notice: “The United States will not cede sovereignty to those that claim authority over American citizens and are in conflict with our constitutional framework.”


This recommitment to sovereignty is worthy of applause. Recent decades have seen a multi-pronged assault on the nation-state system and on the very notion of sovereignty – a worrisome development that represents a threat to U.S. interests and to the liberal international order the United States forged after World War II.

Just glance at the headlines: ISIS is trying to maim and murder its way toward a borderless caliphate. In Libya, Yemen and Somalia, stateless groups and sectarian armies have declared competing zones of authority. Afghanistan is increasingly a figment of cartographers’ imaginations. Russia has deployed troops scrubbed of insignia to wage anonymous warfare against Ukraine. China is building artificial islands in brazen defiance of the sovereignty of its neighbors. After decades of deferring their borders and finances to the EU, many European nations have awoken to realize they have control over neither. Disparate governments and groups are using cyberspace to delete the very notion of nationhood.

These threats to sovereignty can be grouped under three broad headings: transnationalism, supranationalism and postnationalism.

Transnational groups thrive on chaos within a nation-state or region. Their goal is to erode the nation-state system from below. Consider the words of al-Qaida leader Ayman al Zawahiri, who wants to create a geopolitical power that “does not recognize nation-state, national links or the borders imposed by occupiers.” ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi calls on his followers to “trample the idol of nationalism” and “destroy the idol of democracy.” In a sense, the war on terror is an outgrowth of nation-states failing or refusing to live up to the responsibilities of sovereignty, thus allowing transnational movements like ISIS and al-Qaida to exploit the resulting openings.

If transnationalism erodes the nation-state system from below, supranationalism whittles away at it from above. Examples of supranationalism are organizations like the UN, EU and ICC. Writing about the Yugoslav civil war, William Pfaff argues that supranational organizations like the United Nations and European Community (forerunner to the EU) “proved an obstacle to action by inhibiting individual national action and rationalizing the refusal to act nationally.” Something similar happened more recently in Syria. The resulting vacuum fueled the rise of ISIS.

Moreover, the United Nations has watered down the principle of sovereignty by not holding nation-states accountable for their actions. In 2003, the U.N. Security Council took eight weeks to approve a resolution requiring Saddam Hussein to comply with existing resolutions – and then failed to enforce it. In 2010, North Korea torpedoed a South Korean ship in international waters. All the United Nations mustered in response was a pathetic report condemning the attack without mentioning -- let alone punishing – the attacker. In 2012, the Syrian government reopened the Pandora’s box of chemical warfare. The U.N. responded with a farcical disarmament deal that not only failed to disarm Bashar Assad, but ensconced him as essential to carrying out the deal.

The irony is that while U.N. bodies fail to constrain the enemies of international order, they are eager to constrain legitimate, sovereign nation-states: The Washington Post reported in November that the ICC’s chief prosecutor is seeking “an investigation into alleged war crimes perpetrated by U.S. military forces and the CIA in Afghanistan.” The ICC has no authority to take such action since the United States is not party to the ICC treaty, but that hasn’t stopped ICC prosecutors from lunging at U.S. sovereignty.

Finally, postnationalism envisions a world beyond the nation-state. One of the main drivers of postnationalism is globalization, the term used to describe today’s highly integrated global economic system. To be sure, the United States has benefited from globalization. In fact, some contend globalization is just another word for Americanization, and they may be right. After all, President Harry Truman advocated that “the whole world adopt the American system” of free markets, free government and free trade. And the Truman administration declared in NSC-68 that the goal of America’s postwar foreign policy would be “to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish” and “to develop a healthy international community.” The operative word here is “international” – between nations, not beyond nations.

Post-nationalists trust that globalization’s economic and commercial connections will do what the nation-state used to do: enforce norms of behavior, promote stability, and protect individuals and interests from threat. Regrettably, this doesn’t work in practice. After all, when ISIS tears through Iraq and Paris, when Beijing tries to poach international waterways, when Putin’s unmarked armies dismember Ukraine, when al-Qaida maims Manhattan, the victims don’t turn to multinational corporations for help. They turn to nation-states – usually the most powerful nation-state.

That would be the United States, which has defended the nation-state system by resisting these movements throughout its history:

The United States has always opposed transnational movements. Yesterday, it was the “long, twilight struggle” against communism. Today, it’s the generational struggle against jihadism. As to postnationalism and supranationalism, consider America’s founding documents. The Founders announced their independence by declaring it was time for “one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another” and wrote a constitution expressly for “the people of the United States.” The Federalist Papers speak of “our country,” “dangers from abroad” and nations with “opposite interests.” In short, the founders believed in sovereignty, independence and borders.

Yes, Americans have looked beyond borders to pursue close bonds with people of goodwill – witness America’s friendships with such diverse places as Israel and India, Germany and Japan, France and the Philippines, Canada and Korea, Britain and Bahrain – but always in a state-to-state context. And yes, the United States helped found the United Nations. But according to the U.N. Charter, the main goal of its founders was not to encroach upon the sovereignty of members-in-good-standing or to create a supranational government, but rather to protect the “sovereign equality” and “political independence” of nation-states – something Trump has emphasized.

The United States was born into the nation-state system, raised in it, grew to master and shape it, and today benefits from it and thrives in it. If the nation-state ceases to be the main organizing structure for the world – if the rights and responsibilities of sovereignty continue to be eroded – there is no guarantee the United States will have the same position it enjoys today.

Trump’s NSS seems alert to that danger.