Illustration of someone cutting puppet strings connected to globe (State Dept./D. Thompson)
(State Dept./D. Thompson)

“Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured, or peace has ever prospered,” President Trump said in his address to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2018. “And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.”

Respect for sovereign nations has always been at the heart of American democracy and democracies around the world, but it’s an idea that is often misunderstood.

What is sovereignty?

Sovereignty “comes down to two words: Who rules?” said Hudson Institute scholar John Fonte. “Is it the people? Is it a foreign power? That’s what the president is saying when he’s talking about sovereignty. He’s talking about people ruling — and each nation ruling — themselves.”

In the U.S., this concept dates back to the nation’s founding. The Declaration of Independence asserts that governments derive just powers “from the consent of the governed.” In the U.S., voters elect leaders to whom they grant these powers. The people can also take away that authority.

President Abraham Lincoln called this “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told the German Marshall Fund in 2018 that while nations may join international organizations that address common objectives, “nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.”

Sovereignty issues arise if those organizations usurp the powers of self-governing nations. The International Criminal Court, for example, has attempted to assert jurisdiction over citizens of states that never agreed to the court’s statute. This is one reason why President Trump told the U.N., “We will never surrender America’s sovereignty to an unelected, unaccountable global bureaucracy.”

Mike Pompeo at lectern with U.S. flags on both sides (State Dept.)
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Brussels on December 4, 2018. (State Dept.)

Theodore Bromund, a fellow at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said the question is, “Do the states control the organization or does the organization control the states?”

In his remarks to the German Marshall Fund, Pompeo called on sovereign nations to create “international organizations that are agile, that respect national sovereignty, that deliver on their stated missions, and that create value for the liberal order and for the world.”

Does sovereignty lead to aggressive nationalism?

For some, the great wars of the 20th century gave sovereignty a bad name. Post-World War II Europeans in particular, Fonte said, equate it with an aggressive form of nationalism. “They said, ‘These wars — World War I and World War II — were started by nationalists!’ Well, they were started by dictators, by totalitarian regimes.” But this, Fonte argued, misses the positive contributions of nationalism and of sovereign states.

Far from being a force for aggression, sovereignty has historically been “a way of promoting peace by establishing boundaries,” professor Jeremy Rabkin argues in his book The Case for Sovereignty. “A government that wanted to live at peace with its neighbors had to respect their sovereign rights” and exercise its own authority “in ways that made it a tolerable neighbor.”

Fonte said that, in the last century, “nationalists were basically people who were considered patriots — Winston Churchill in Britain but also Gandhi, who opposed Churchill, in India. They were both called nationalists because they were putting their own countries first.”

According to Fonte, these revered leaders and others such as Charles de Gaulle, Franklin Roosevelt and Margaret Thatcher were considered democratic nationalists, a term often used interchangeably with “patriots.”

Fonte points to the president’s answer when asked if Trump is a nationalist. “He said, ‘I love the country, and I’m putting it first.’ The definition he gave is the same as patriotism.”

President Trump at lectern speaking in front of a group (© Anthony Wallace/AP Images)
Speaking at an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation event in 2017, President Trump promised, “We will respect your independence and your sovereignty.” (© Anthony Wallace/AP Images)

Is sovereignty the same as isolationism?

Independent self-government does not mean isolationism or turning away from important work with other nations.

The Trump administration has worked consistently with trading partners such as Mexico, Canada and nations throughout Africa to build free, fair, and reciprocal economic relationships.

The U.S. has also partnered with countries worldwide to increase global security by disrupting terror plots and taking direct action against terrorist networks. The U.S. makes substantial contributions to NATO and encourages its sovereign partners to increase their contributions to the alliance.

While the U.S. will continue to work with other nations to meet its goals, that work will take place between sovereign states secure within their own borders. “The idea that having a fence means you never want to talk to your neighbor is ridiculous,” Bromund said.

“We believe,” said the president, “that when nations respect the rights of their neighbors, and defend the interests of their people, they can better work together to secure the blessings of safety, prosperity, and peace.”

A version of this article was previously published on December 4, 2018.