(December 10, 2018 / JNS) U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo delivered a rare speech last week on the overall strategic vision of the United States 30 years after the Cold War ended. The speech—to the Marshall Fund in Brussels, named for George Marshall, Pompeo’s predecessor under both presidents Roosevelt and Truman—didn’t receive much coverage outside of the usual wonkish titles, and a good deal of what was produced was unflattering.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the speech was nothing short of “ridiculous.” The CFR charged Pompeo with hypocritically “tilting at straw men” (a range of international organizations from the International Monetary Fund to the Organization of American States to the United Nations) even as his boss, President Donald Trump, signals his “readiness to cozy up to strongmen and killers from Vladimir Putin to Rodrigo Duterte to Mohammed bin Salman to too many more to list.” Nor was Foreign Policy magazine any more generous. Its correspondent deemed Pompeo’s speech “tone-deaf and arrogant,” adding acidly that “no one—except perhaps Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and a few other autocrats—bought it.”
It is a great shame that these august institutions feel the need to ridicule Pompeo in a manner that his two immediate predecessors—John Kerry and Rex Tillerson—would most certainly have been spared. Tillerson, remember, spent much of his business career making nice with dictators, including Putin, as part of the 2014 deal brokered between ExxonMobil and Russian oil company Rosneft, while Kerry was the architect of the infamous 2015 Iran nuclear deal, one of the many consequences of which was to stabilize Bashar Assad’s blood-drenched dictatorship in Syria. I can think of much harsher words than “ridiculous” to summarize those actions.
That said, my intention here is not to respond with a full-throated defense of Pompeo’s speech. There were parts, particularly when he addressed the threats posed by specific countries like Russia and Iran, which were frankly a relief to hear. But the Secretary also took a sledgehammer approach to most of the international institutions created after World War II, depicting them as self-serving bureaucracies standing in the way of—as the title of Pompeo’s speech put it—“Restoring the Role of the Nation-State in the Liberal International Order.”
The term “liberal international order” describes an arrangement of world affairs in which those states that are based on the rule of law, democratic government and social tolerance—foremost among them the United States—play the dominant role in guaranteeing international security. That, more or less, is the situation that has prevailed since World War II, a period that has witnessed countless hideous regional and civil wars, but not (so far) a truly global conflagration.
In his Brussels speech, the secretary of state recited a familiar list of countries that pose a grave threat to that order and yet in which prior U.S. administrations have still shown faith: China (“We welcomed China into the liberal order, but never policed its behavior”); Iran (“after the nuclear deal was inked, it spread its newfound riches to terrorists and to dictators”); and Russia (“Russia hasn’t embraced Western values of freedom and international cooperation. Rather, it has suppressed opposition voices and invaded the sovereign nations of Georgia and of Ukraine.”)
All of these are points that needed to be stressed, particularly in the diplomatic corridors and halls of Europe. When it came to North Korea, the doyenne of rogue states, Pompeo hailed the Trump administration’s approach of direct negotiations accompanied by an international sanctions coalition. “No other nation in the world could have rallied dozens of nations, from every corner of the world, to impose sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang,” he declared.
So far, so rosy, which is, perhaps, where the problems in the speech make their entrance. In some ways, Pompeo’s remarks were a strange fusion of conservative realism and radical imagineering. For example, there were no calls for “regime change”” in either Iran or North Korea, merely toughly worded demands for their existing regimes to reform their behavior internationally. Many serial human-rights violators that maintain close relationships with the U.S.—Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia—went unmentioned. But then Pompeo took an almost blasé attitude towards the European Union, arguing that the United Kingdom’s impending “Brexit” was a clarion call to ensure that “the interests of countries and their citizens are placed before those of bureaucrats here in Brussels.” This is hardly the most informed summary when you consider, firstly, that a post-Brexit United Kingdom will leave that country in a far more distressed state than it was while in the E.U.; and secondly, that the main lesson gleaned by the E.U. is that its success in strong-arming the British government means that the rest of its member states are unlikely to want to repeat that experience.
Pompeo’s implied sympathy for Brexit—even if not the centerpiece of speech that firmly restated America’s commitment to a liberal world order—illustrates the danger of elevating the “nation-state” to an ideological principle in international relations. To begin with, you have to clearly explain what a “nation-state” is, especially given the widespread misconception that a “nation-state” is the same thing as a “nationalist” state, a political term equated in the minds of many with “national socialism,” “fascism” and “racism.” In addition, there is a danger of making a fetish out of the nation-state, just as the Obama administration’s fetish for “multilateralism” led us into the Iran deal, and just over year after that, an unprecedented U.S. abstention on a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
If there is a Pompeo doctrine, then perhaps it is this comment at the end of his speech: “Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens—not to control them. America intends to lead—now and always.”
The problem is that one country’s sovereign democracy is another country’s sovereign autocracy. Can a nation-state-centered world order be “liberal” enough to overcome the sacred principle of “non-interference” in the affairs of other nations? That is the question the secretary of state didn’t really answer.
Ben Cohen writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics. His writings have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Haaretz, The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.