Harry Truman was a modest man from a humble upbringing who served his country in war and peace. In other words, the anti-Trump. Thus it is no surprise that when he addressed the conference that founded the United Nations in 1945, his message was pretty much the opposite of what his bombastic successor said Tuesday at the U.N. General Assembly.
Truman’s speech in San Francisco was all about the need for countries to curb their exercise of self-interest for the greater good of mankind. He warned U.N. members against using their power “selfishly – for the advantage of any one nation or any small group of nations.”
“We all have to recognize – no matter how great our strength – that we must deny ourselves the license to do always as we please,” Truman said. “If any nation would keep security for itself, it must be ready and willing to share security with all. That is the price which each nation will have to pay for world peace.”
Truman’s words laid the foundation for the postwar order underwritten by America. Rather than pursuing our narrow self-interest, the Greatest Generation chose to help defeated enemies and devastated allies, sending generous aid via the Marshall Plan and creating lasting institutions such as NATO and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (forerunner of the World Trade Organization) to promote prosperity and security for all.
Truman and his aides would have been appalled to see President Trump threatening war and praising national sovereignty as the greatest good in the world. “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries, will always and should always put your countries first,” he said.
The Trump doctrine is selfishness squared. Just as Trump has never done anything in his life that did not benefit him personally, he cannot imagine any nation acting for the general good. In his private life, it’s me first. In his foreign policy, it’s America First.
Trump abjured any desire to address human rights abuses abroad. “In America,” he said, “we do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.” That would come as news to the Truman administration, which successfully imposed “our way of life” on Italy, Germany and Japan, turning them from hostile dictatorships into friendly democracies.
Having preached a non-judgmental, non-interventionist foreign policy, Trump then upended that message by vowing to intervene against Iran and North Korea. Coherence has never been his strong suit. “Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime,” he said, using a juvenile nickname for the dictator of North Korea, whose country he threatened to “totally destroy.”
Then it was Iran’s turn, with Trump demanding that its “government must stop supporting terrorists, begin serving its own people, and respect the sovereign rights of its neighbors.” He also hinted he’d abrogate the nuclear deal, though there is no evidence that Iran has violated its terms.
And on to Syria and “the criminal regime of Bashar Assad,” whose actions “shock the conscience of every decent person,” and the “socialist dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro,” which has “inflicted terrible pain and suffering on the good people of” Venezuela.
It did not occur to Trump that Kim Jong Un, Ayatollah Ali Khameni, Assad, Maduro and other dictators are pursuing the same kind of “me first” policy he advocates. They are committing atrocities and stockpiling weapons of mass destruction in order to protect their “sovereignty,” as they define it. And Trump’s bellicose speech will only convince them that they are right to do so.
Trump may think that his bullying and swaggering will win respect for himself and his country, but he is wrong. Respect for America abroad has plummeted, and foreign leaders don’t take Trump seriously: North Korea has conducted three missile tests and a massive nuclear test since he threatened “fire and fury.”
Truman, who dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, clearly was not afraid to stand up to America’s enemies. But he did not believe in empty threats, and he knew the importance of alliances. He made America trusted and respected, because he did not seek to take full advantage of its power. The system of collective security he created grew out of one world war and prevented the outbreak of another. It is now in serious danger of dismantlement at Trump’s reckless hands.