How Trump shocked Europe into an overdue realignment

Time to rethink the structures of the Cold War

British Prime Minister Theresa May, U.S. President Donald Trump, German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
(Image credit: REUTERS/Stephane De Sakutin)

Future historians of the Trump presidency will no doubt marvel at the number of crises he caused or exacerbated through his simple incapacity to perform, take seriously, or even understand the immense responsibilities placed upon him.

The most recent casualty of the bungler-in-chief may be the entire Western international political order, constructed by FDR and Truman after the Second World War. After a visit to Europe where Trump badgered European leaders up and down the continent, those leaders (in particular Germany's Angela Merkel) are weighing the shocking possibility that America might end up as hostile to European interests.

Yet in retrospect, the Western order has been cracking for years. If world elites are to rebuild a new globe-spanning enlightened political structure, they will have to come up with a new set of principles, and come to terms with their own egregious violations of liberal ones.

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Once again, Trump's jaw-dropping ignorance, belligerence, shamelessness, and obvious mental decline are what really shocked European leaders. He can only remember one or two very simple facts about any subject (recall him repeating over and over during the campaign that sneak attacks were a good war strategy). And the one that has sunk in about NATO is that most member states aren't spending the agreed-upon 2 percent of GDP on the military. He therefore hammered that point all across the continent, and focused special ire on Germany, accusing it of unfair trade practices. In a speech in Brussels, Trump notably refused to endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which guarantees mutual aid, despite reporting that he would do it.

Like his promise to make Mexico pay for the wall, all this is probably mostly bluster. But Trump's rude behavior and manifest incapacity to govern, coupled to the fact that Trump had just finished lavishing praise on the brutal monarchy of Saudi Arabia, infuriated European leaders. Merkel, in charge of the continent's most powerful nation, is considering leading Europe away from the postwar order:

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As Jeet Heer argues, even more alarming than President Trump is the fact that the Republican Party is covering for and enabling him every step of the way. The GOP is simply profoundly diseased as an institution — and so even if Trump ever steps down, there is no telling what maniac they'll line up behind next. One can't place one's hopes on American conservatives rediscovering their conscience or ability to reason — at this point one must assume that Paul Ryan and the rest of the party leadership would make their peace with President David Duke, so long as he promised to take health care away from poor people.

However, it's important to note that this is not all Trump's doing. German opinion of the United States has been fraying for a long time, driven by American abuse of NATO to wage unending, unwinnable war in Afghanistan, as well as disastrous failed interventions elsewhere. The revelation of NSA spying — especially on Merkel herself — inspired widespread outrage in a country with a strong memory of the abuses of dragnet surveillance.

What's more, Trump isn't exactly wrong to say that NATO is "obsolete" (though he has since changed his tune). The alliance was built to contain the Soviet Union, but there has not been a really serious reckoning about what should be done with Cold War-vintage structures now that their ostensible reason for existence has vanished. Instead, NATO has expanded eastward again and again more or less on autopilot — and caused quite a lot of resentment in Russia in the process.

Finally, Germany is not remotely in a position to stand up as a new leader of a enlightened community of nations. It is largely German influence that has made the eurozone the worst economic calamity since the Great Depression. A true leader of Europe would help sort out the structural problems with the euro on a pan-European basis, not bludgeon recalcitrant nations with deliberate bank runs.

The postwar Western political order had a great many problems. In the Middle East, Latin America, Africa, and Southeast Asia, it meant a great deal of war, brutal economic coercion, abridgment of sovereignty, enabling of dictatorship, and occasionally even genocide. But its stated ideals of a community of friendly co-equal nations, all allowed to pursue economic prosperity under a common security umbrella, is not a bad one, however stained it was by awful hypocrisy elsewhere. For America, Canada, Western Europe, the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand, it was genuinely great.

Someday that idea might be resurrected on a more permanent basis, with genuinely neutral institutions to adjudicate trade disputes and so on. But if that is to be built, Western nations must first set forth a new basic justification rooted in modern politics and history, and reckon with their own failures of the past few decades. In America, the left must defeat Trump and his party at the ballot box, and then rebuild an inclusive economy and restore democratic rights to maintain that power. In Europe, elites must reckon with the failure of the eurozone, especially in how its incompetent, anti-democratic operation has inflamed right-wing extremism.

A decent, enlightened international order starts by respecting democracy at home.

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