Donald Trump cannot be, and perhaps never wished to be, the leader of the free world, the burden which has fallen on the shoulders of Oval Office occupants since World War Two. America First means America Withdrawn.
But he could still have been the dealer of the free world, taking his 1987 book “Trump: The Art of the Deal” and applying to international affairs its precepts on how to get the better of any negotiation. Had he done so with at least an eye to Western as well as American interests, it might have benefited us all. (Trump’s co-author, Tony Schwartz, has now taken to TV and Twitter to warn that the president’s “continuing meltdown” puts “the republic at enormous risk.”)
But it seems Trump doesn’t want to be the free world’s dealer either. His performance next to a triumphant Vladimir Putin after their July 16 Helsinki meeting shamed all (small “d”) democrats. The U.S. president has abased himself before one who has seized part of a neighboring state (Ukraine) while fomenting revolt in another part, helped ensure the victory of authoritarian leader Bashar al-Assad in Syria’s civil war, closed down most independent civil society institutions in Russia, and marginalized all challenges to his cardboard simulacrum of a “democracy.”
When a U.S. president so lauds a man like Putin, when he treats a summit – for which preparation should be meticulous and performance expressive of values and differences, seeking compromise only where principled – as a warm buddy-bath of meaningless assurances and compliments, then more than the American republic is at enormous risk.
To make it worse, this abasement followed a trip to Europe in which “set out to humiliate the leaders of Western Europe and declare them ‘foes’; to fracture long-standing military, economic, and political alliances; and to absolve Russia of its attempts to undermine the 2016 election. He did so clearly, repeatedly, and with conviction.”
The effect of Trump’s brief stay in Europe was to reveal in startling clarity that “conviction,” which seemed to be an intent to render meaningless all existing understandings with major American allies, allowing for no lingering doubts that his skepticism about NATO and his contempt for Europe – and especially Germany – could be simply a matter of mood. America’s most intimate allies – the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, the pillars of the so-called Anglosphere – are now in the hapless posture of trying to retain a “special relationship” with a president who has fun insulting them, as he did with Canadian premier Justin Trudeau after refusing to sign the G7 joint statement following the group’s meeting in Canada last month, and as he did with British Prime Minister Theresa May, when, as her guest during a visit to the UK, he chided her for not listening to his advice to leave the European Union and promoted her most prominent critic, the former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, as her successor.
Both Trudeau and May are dependent on the United States: he, as a neighbor whose trade with the colossus to the south accounts for almost 25 percent of Canada’s GDP; she, as one desperately seeking partners for a post-Brexit world in which trade with the European Union is likely to sharply diminish.
And when the U.S. president returns to the United States, realizes that the storm from within his own party is too great to ignore, then mounts so risible a “correction” – “I said the word ‘would’ instead of ‘wouldn’t” – then we are in a world not just where words lose all meaning. We are in an Alice in Wonderland universe where a Trumpty-Dumpty can say "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less… the question is, which is to be master – that's all."
We are witnessing a sustained attack on an assumed system of liberal values by the figure who most of all has been tapped, in post-war times, to protect them. The U.S. National Defense Strategy rightly saw the world as one where rival powers, led by China, now seek to reduce the West’s hegemony over a world where some version of a liberal order – where the rule of international law is observed and trade can be carried out securely – is protected, most of all by the United States.
For the present, the most important question is how far the West will continue to be able to defend and project liberal democratic values. The young almost everywhere have become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, and less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, according to research by the political scientists Yascha Mounk and Roberto Stefan Foa. Yet, according to Richard Fontaine and Daniel Twining, writing in Foreign Affairs, Washington is “hardly playing defense” against the offensive by Beijing and Moscow – much less “championing a robust agenda for protecting and enlarging the free world.”
Some U.S. presidents have been better than others at making such a robust agenda a central goal of their policy. In recent times, George W. Bush, who himself seemed to favor an “America First” policy when he took over the presidency, opened his second term by promising “to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture.” Barack Obama was no America Firster, but did wish to set limits on the world policeman role, and encouraged allies, especially in Europe, to play a larger part in upholding global liberal values. Both men proclaimed liberty as at the core of their foreign policy aims. The 45th president does not.
Thus, from Donald’s adventures in the lands of the Europeans, we must recognize that these values must be fought for without his help – indeed, at times, with his opposition. The rot, like that of a fish, has started at the head. We can only hope it doesn’t reach too far before a new head is found.