Some near-forgotten anniversaries are worth commemorating. One hundred years ago —Bastille Day, 1918 — Theodore Roosevelt’s youngest son, Quentin, was killed in aerial combat at the Second Battle of the Marne. Twenty-six years later, Quentin’s oldest brother, Ted, also died in France, after landing at Utah Beach on D-Day.
Quentin and Ted are buried side-by-side at the Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial in Colleville-sur-Mer. It’s a moving sight for everyone who still believes in the cause for which they and their brothers in arms fought and died — above all, the idea, possibility and preservation of a free world, anchored and inspired by America but not subservient to it.
In other words, the things that Donald Trump has spent his presidency trashing under the historically sordid banner of “America First.”
That trashing reached some sort of climax this week with the president’s excruciating tantrum against Germany at the NATO summit in Brussels, followed by his gratuitous humiliation of British Prime Minister Theresa May via an interview in a Murdoch tabloid. Maybe next he’ll propose that Vladimir Putin rejoin the Group of 7 — except he already did that in Canada more than a month ago, right around the time he launched a trade war with Canada, Mexico and the European Union.
What does all this achieve?
No doubt just what Trump intends: the collapse of the liberal international order, both in its animating commitment to open societies as well as its defining international institutions —the G-7, NATO, the European Union, the World Trade Organization. Seen in this light, the president’s wretched behavior isn’t — or isn’t merely — the product of a defective personality. It’s the result of a willful ideology.
So much should be clear by the president’s negotiating style, guaranteed as it is to elicit “no” for an answer.
It’s fair to expect that other NATO members should spend more of their gross domestic product on defense; and fair to expect, too, that they should reach the 2 percent benchmark sometime sooner than 2024. It isn’t fair to demand, as Trump does, that they reach the 2 percent mark by January, and then increase it to 4 percent.
It’s fair to say that the U.S. could use its leverage to negotiate more advantageous trade deals. It isn’t fair to insist on politically untenable trade concessions he knows other countries won’t make — a sunset clause for Nafta, for example — in order to destroy these agreements permanently while blaming the other side.
It’s fair to say that it will be difficult for Britain to negotiate an independent trade agreement with the U.S. if it maintains E.U. rules on trade in goods. But Trump’s goal isn’t to help steer May through Brexit. It’s to bring her government down and replace her with Boris Johnson, because the former foreign secretary “obviously likes me and says very good things about me.”
Above all, it’s fair to prod and cajole and quarrel with our core allies — in private. But Trump is out to embarrass them in public, putting them to the choice of becoming enemies or toadies, breaking up or sucking up. That’s no doubt fine with him: America First is America Feared. But it is also America hated, and hated with justification. Where’s the upside in that?
For Trump, the upside is the substitution of a liberal order with an illiberal one, based on conceits about sovereignty, nationality, religion and ethnicity. These are the same conceits that Vladimir Putin has long made his own, which helps explain Trump’s affinity for his Russian counterpart and his distress that Robert Mueller’s investigation “really hurts our relationship with Russia,” as he remarked Friday.
It also explains his undisguised contempt for contemporary European democracy and his efforts to replace it with something more Trumpian: xenophobic, protectionist and truculent. This is the Europe of Germany’s Alexander Gauland, France’s Marine Le Pen, Britain’s Nigel Farage, Hungary’s Viktor Orban, Poland’s Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini. Note that the last three are already in power.
All this must be gratifying to Trump’s sense of his historical importance. For America, it’s a historical disaster. The United States can only lead a world that’s prepared to follow.
But follow what? Not the rules of trade that America once set but now claims are rigged against it. Not the democratic ideals that America once embodied but now treats with disdain. Not the example of fighting bullies, after it has now become one.
This will suit Americans for whom the idea of a free world always seemed like a distant abstraction. It will suit Europeans whose anti-Americanism predates Trump’s arrival by decades. And it will especially suit Putin, who knows that an America that stands for its own interests first also stands, and falls, alone. Surely the dead at Colleville-sur-Mer fought for something greater than that.
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