President Trump’s inaugural United Nations speech was a study in inconsistency, a dueling flirtation with sovereignty-focused realism, on the one hand, and on the other a lust for global intervention in a vain attempt to solve remote political problems with American military might. Despite repeated themes of self-determination and responsibility, Trump betrayed his own principles by asserting an intent to recklessly escalate the United States’ ill-advised role of world police.
Perhaps nowhere was this contradiction more evident than in Trump’s treatment of Venezuela, a country with a deeply inhumane government but one that poses no threat to U.S. security—which is to say, a country the United States has absolutely no cause to attack.
That the Nicolás Maduro regime is unsavory is not at issue. Trump is correct in his charge that Maduro’s cruel and corrupt socialism “has brought a once-thriving nation to the brink of total collapse.” Venezuelans are suffering runaway inflation—their money is now so worthless some shopkeepers have taken to weighing instead of counting it—and desperate shortages of food and other necessities. The price of a single basket of groceries is four times the monthly minimum wage. Pets are starving in the streets. The military is trafficking food and arresting bakers for trying to stretch their meager supplies.
There is no denying Venezuela’s situation is grave. The question is whether U.S. military intervention is its solution. To hear Trump tell it—in about half his speech, that is—the answer is “no.”
“In America, 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,” Trump said, echoing John Quincy Adams. Each country, he added, “cannot wait for someone else, for faraway countries or far-off bureaucrats—we can’t do it. We must solve our problems, to build our prosperity, to secure our futures, or we will be vulnerable to decay, domination, and defeat.”
Sovereignty is the “founding principle” of foreign affairs, Trump averred, and every state’s duty is to defend its own people and to guard their rights. There is no suggestion that Venezuela’s tragic decline poses any threat to the United States—no one, Trump included, has made the case that it does—and there is no plausible, practical, or moral basis for U.S. intervention. Such military action would be an aggressive war of choice, imprudent and utterly unconnected to American defense.
Yet in practical application to Venezuela’s crisis (not to mention other far-flung conflicts and oppressions), Trump’s ethos of self-responsibility dissolves. In the U.N. speech, he declared America prepared to “take further action” against Venezuela, implicitly reiterating his recent threat of a “military option.” Trump left unsaid or even unnoticed how this plan would precisely fit the description of “faraway countries or far-off bureaucrats” trying to externally solve Venezuela’s internal problems.
The president is right to be troubled by the suffering he sees in Venezuela. Anyone of basic good conscience must be. But good intentions do not guarantee good policy. A desire to help does not and cannot justify any and every course of action.
The potential for American military intervention to prolong and exacerbate Venezuelan misery is real and serious. In Iraq, Libya, and beyond, past administrations have writ large a caution of the deadly consequences misguided interventionism all too easily can have. The appeal of overthrowing a strongman like Maduro—or Saddam Hussein or Muammar Gaddafi—is as evident as post-invasion stability, prosperity, and peace are elusive.
Furthermore, if anything could bolster the Maduro regime’s fortunes among the Venezuelan public, it would be the perception of looming U.S. imperialism. Maduro has already used Vice President Mike Pence’s previous threats of U.S. military action to promote anti-imperialist sentiment that grudgingly favors his government. “Even talking about U.S. intervention is a gift to Maduro and his allies, who desperately need the distraction that it readily provides,” notes The American Conservative’s Daniel Larison.
A people can hate their oppressive regime without preferring foreign invasion. Opposing Maduro is not the same as inviting the U.S. military to intervene.
Trump’s speech at the United Nations incongruously paired principles of self-determination with plans, in practice, to more firmly entrench the United States in her addiction to worldwide military intervention into other countries’ affairs. For the sake of the American and Venezuelan people alike, Trump would do well to untangle his inconsistent thinking on foreign policy, to work out a coherent grand strategy that prioritizes restraint, diplomacy, and free trade. That course—not another misguided war of choice—is the best way America can help bring Venezuela back to prosperity and freedom.