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Photograph from the United Nations

Dear Mr. President,

I wanted to let you know that as I read your speech to the United Nations, I found myself overcome with a bemused befuddlement. It struck me that you must have found yourself in the middle of a maelstrom of cognitive dissonance as you implored the United Nations to respect the sovereignty of values and cultures of independent nations while simultaneously threatening the “big stick” of intervention should things not go the way your vision of America would prefer. It was as though you wanted the sovereignty of America respected and knew that you needed to cast that wish in a universal light for propriety, but simultaneously felt like everyone else could just toss off. “What sort of mindset could feel this way,” I thought, “and who still thinks that we can just independently do whatever we want without affecting a significant number of others?”

We live in a world where our actions can and do have global effects. I mean “we” in a human sense, Mr. President, not just as Americans. The economic decisions made by Chinese officials, for example, affect the United States in more ways than simply providing competing goods. When they pursue economic manufacturing growth to protect their nation, their interests, and their future, their air pollution spreads far enough to affect the west coast of the United States. While you pursue policies to promote coal mining in the United States, the environmental effects caused by those policies play a part in driving disastrous changes to our worldwide climate. Our world is an intricately linked web where the decisions in one location can vastly affect another, regardless of the political lines drawn on maps. To pursue policies of self-interest, of “America First,” in that reality is ludicrous and incredibly selfish.

The selfish nature of your speech is further underlined when you speak of refugees. In your portrayal, the best place for refugees is “as close to their home countries as possible”; in other words, especially with regards to Syrian refugees, as far from the United States as possible. You suggest that accepting refugees “reduces domestic pressure to pursue needed political and economic reform,” as though the promise of a safe life in America stymied the political and economic reforms of Spain, France, England, Germany, China, Japan, and more. If only, your speech implies, the supporters of the White Armies remained in the Soviet Union instead of settling in America. They could have provided “domestic pressure” from the gulags and firing squads to reform the Soviet Union. If only the Muslim Bosnians who fled to the American Midwest had remained in their southeast Europe. They could have provided “domestic pressure” to gain political reforms and, maybe, stop the ethnic cleansing of their people. Do I need to rhetorically ask about Jewish refugees in the 1930s as well? We have accepted refugees from Asian warzones and beyond, all the while understanding that they were often escaping because they had to. To remain even in close proximity of their country was to remain in danger, and our country has, on the whole, been for the better because of those refugees.

You speak a strong game “…to respect the right of [your] own people and the rights of every other sovereign nation,” but what is your solution when the interests of Americans are at odds with the rights of other sovereign nations? You made it clear: “I will always put America first.” Your claims of cooperation and unity fall under the weight of this contradiction. Rather than imploring the leaders of the world to unite under a global cause or ideal which can stretch beyond borders, you offer divisive nationalism as an alternative. Instead of seeing refugees as human beings, you see them as “others,” better helped if they just stay far away from you. As one of the American citizens you profess to represent, I find this to be a bitter, misanthropic alternative. If you would like to work on this attitude, I recommend stretching your empathetic muscles by volunteering with the United Nations, especially in its Refugee agency.




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