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Trump denounced 'globalism' at the U.N. — but what does that word really mean?

Trump denounced 'globalism' at the U.N. — but what does that word really mean?
President Trump addresses the 73rd United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. (Spencer Platt / Getty Images)

It was hardly the first time President Trump had expressed his disdain for “globalism” – but his latest condemnation made the world sit up and take notice.

"America is governed by Americans,” he told the United Nations General Assembly on Tuesday. “We reject the ideology of globalism, and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism."

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It went unnoticed by almost no one that Trump chose what Britain’s Guardian newspaper called “globalism’s high temple” – the world body’s signature gathering, held annually at its New York headquarters -- as a venue for decrying what he described as a harmful ideology that undermines the United States.

Different audiences interpreted his remarks very differently. As is often the case, Trump won plaudits in some quarters for challenging long-held orthodoxy, and was pilloried elsewhere for oversimplifying a complex issue and using false logic to promote an international agenda that parallels his political goals at home.

Here is some background about globalism and how the concept is interpreted.

WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE TERM?

Globalism defies easy definition. An entry from the Cambridge Dictionary calls it “the idea that events in one country cannot be separated from those in another and that economic and foreign policy should be planned in an international way.” But it is often used as a catch-all term to describe the postwar world order – encompassing the policies and practices of international institutions such as the United Nations, the World Bank, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and the European Union. And it is also a sometime synonym for a cosmopolitan view of global interconnectedness, and the notion that the common good sometimes outweighs nations’ narrow self-interests.

HOW DID THE POSTWAR ORDER COME ABOUT?

From the ashes of two world wars came a realization that multilateral institutions might help head off exactly the sorts of disputes – economic, political, territorial -- that could erupt into conflagration. In 1947, then-Secretary of State George Marshall – the architect of the European Recovery Program, widely known as the Marshall Plan – declared that the United States “should do whatever it is able to assist the return of normal economic health in the world, without which there can be no political stability and no assured peace.” Today, the U.S.-led reconstruction of war-shattered Western Europe is widely regarded as one of the foremost foreign-policy triumphs of the 20th century.

SO WHY WERE TRUMP’S COMMENTS SO JARRING?

Because the United States was, in essence, the inventor of globalism, by helping create the multilateral institutions that underpin it. And America has perhaps been globalism’s greatest beneficiary; many economists and historians consider the postwar period the springboard for unparalleled U.S. influence and accumulation of wealth.

Some commentators also saw Trump’s tirade against globalism – combined with the speech’s overtones of isolationism and nationalism -- as a retreat from the principles the United States has long sought to export to the rest of the world, such as individual liberties and human rights.

“It very much amounts to an ‘America First’ foreign policy, in which the most important thing is that values have no place in Trump’s view of the world,” said Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former U.S. diplomat.

DOESN’T GLOBALISM HAVE DETRACTORS OTHER THAN TRUMP?

Yes, many. International trade policies are often blamed for promoting economic inequity; military alliances can set the stage for seemingly open-ended conflicts like that in Afghanistan, and critics of institutionally driven bureaucracies say excessive rule making stifles entrepreneurial energies.

President Trump participates in a U.N. Security Council briefing at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday,
President Trump participates in a U.N. Security Council briefing at the U.N. General Assembly on Wednesday, (Evan Vucci / AP)

IN THE AGE OF TRUMP, HAS GLOBALISM BECOME CODE FOR OTHER ISSUES?

Context is important. Observers noted that the president’s speech bore many rhetorical hallmarks of Stephen Miller, the senior White House aide who has championed some of the White House’s most draconian immigration policies. And using globalism as shorthand for a world trading system that unfairly disadvantages the United States — as Trump tells it — fits neatly with the president’s current campaign of using tariffs as a weapon not only against rivals like China but allies like Canada and members of the European Union.

HOW WERE TRUMP’S COMMENTS ON GLOBALISM RECEIVED?

The president’s outspoken mistrust of international institutions has been warmly received among his conservative base at home, and by authoritarian-minded leaders elsewhere. But some of the strongest pushback came from other world leaders who also spoke at the U.N. gathering. At a time when institutions like the European Union face an existential threat, French President Emmanuel Macron cited a “crisis” threatening “the very foundation of today’s world.”

At the same time, allies warned that new systems and institutions could at least partly supplant the U.S.-led order. Macron pointed out that the landmark Paris climate accord had survived Trump’s pullout. And signatories to the Iran nuclear accord, also rejected by the U.S. president, joined Monday in recommitting to the accord.

DOES GLOBALISM CONFLICT WITH SOVEREIGNTY?

The president apparently believes so. “Sovereign and independent nations are the only vehicle where freedom has ever survived, democracy has ever endured or peace has ever prospered,” Trump told the General Assembly. “And so we must protect our sovereignty and our cherished independence above all.”

Critics, though, called that a false choice. Global institutions like the U.N. “are easy to criticize, and they often deserve it,” Daniel Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, wrote on Twitter. But pointing out such shortcomings without acknowledging their core missions, he said, “falsely portrays them as threats to U.S. sovereignty.”

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