Imagine that a Democrat—Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, any Democrat—had been elected president in 2016. And imagine that the Democrat in the White House had done any one—not to mention all—of the following things:
- Commended the brutal North Korean tyrant, Kim Jong-un as “a great personality…, a funny guy, … very smart,” who “loves his people,” and granted him the huge concession of a face-to-face meeting with the American president; then suddenly—and unilaterally—canceled American military exercises with South Korea, all in exchange for no meaningful concession on the part of the North Koreans.
- Repeatedly praised the Russian autocrat, Vladimir Putin—the man who ordered and presided over the gravest foreign assault on American democratic institutions in history—as a strong and effective leader, and easier to deal with than our own allies, while refusing to condemn Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, his annexation of Crimea, or his intervention in the American electoral process.
- Generated so much tension over trade with America’s leading democratic allies at the recent G7 summit in Canada that it came to be known as the “G6 plus one,” leaving the president to reject the joint summit communiqué the U.S. had agreed to and plunging America’s relations with its European allies into their worst state in memory.
- Launching ad hominem attacks on the elected leaders of two of our most faithful democratic allies, Canada and Germany, around the time of his recent visits there.
- Clumsily intervened in the domestic politics of Britain—whose partnership with the U.S. through a century of world wars and rivalries has been so intimate that Churchill termed it “the special relationship”—by criticizing Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May and lauding her party rival, thus aggravating the political turmoil over the stalemated Brexit negotiations.
- Undermined and disparaged NATO—the most successful interstate alliance for peace in modern history—by repeatedly declining to embrace the all-important Article 5 (the collective-defense clause) and pursuing what a leading centrist think tank called “uniquely divisive” tactics in bludgeoning NATO allies over a narrow interpretation of their investment in the alliance.
- Trashed the pillars of free trade by demonizing NAFTA, withdrawing the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and launching trade wars with Europe, Canada, and China, thereby increasing consumer prices on a host of manufactured goods, undermining American agricultural and other exports, and putting at risk more than $200 billion in trade while jeopardizing America’s economic recovery.
If a Democratic president had freely conceded so much, so gratuitously and seemingly impulsively, to dictators and strategic adversaries while eroding the pillars of our most precious and enduring alliances, Republicans in Congress would be up in arms. Most treated President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran as naïve and dangerous if not virtually treasonous, but Obama managed to freeze Iran’s nuclear weapons program before it built a single bomb. All Trump has done so far is appease our adversaries and shake the confidence of our allies.
If Congressional Republicans issue foreign policy dissents at all, they are specific, carefully worded critiques of one policy or another, without confronting the broader pattern of a narrow, bullying foreign policy that is not putting America first but rather Donald Trump himself. It’s hard to find a better metaphor for the Trump foreign policy than the pathetic video clip of the American president literally shoving the prime minister of tiny Montenegro out of the way at the 2017 NATO summit to get to the front of the photograph. As former Republican Congressman David Jolly said of Trump last night on the 11th Hour with Brian Williams, “He goes abroad and sells himself, not freedom and democracy.”
In fact, in a sharp departure from the Republican presidencies of Reagan and both Bushes, Trump looks admiringly (and one fears, enviously) at the power and decisiveness of authoritarian strongmen, such as Putin, Xi, Kim, Turkey’s Reccep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, and the Philippines’ Rodgrigo Duterte. Since coming to power in June 2016, Duterte has waged a violent, extra-judicial war on alleged drug dealers that has claimed the lives of more than 12,000 people. With his security forces making “systematic use of torture,” Al-Sisi, “re-elected” in April with 97 percent of the vote, has brutally decimated a civil society landscape that once generated real hope for peaceful democratic change. Erdogan, who has destroyed a vibrant democracy in Turkey, has the distinction of holding more journalists in prison than any other autocrat in the world (with China and Egypt ranking second and third).
We have in Donald Trump a reckless, obtuse and deeply insecure President of the United States, who makes and wrecks foreign policy on the fly, with slapdash preparation and little consultation with his own top officials and Ambassadors, not to mention our most important allies. Whatever is driving Trump, his shocking disregard for diplomatic conventions, historic alliances, and the American national interest no longer surprises. However, the damage is compounded exponentially by the lack of forceful denunciation from Republican members of Congress. They know full well that President Trump is placing in jeopardy the entire democratic architecture of post-World War II bonds that have deterred Russian and Chinese aggression and preserved American global security and leadership. But just as they have failed to contain his domestic political outrages, so Congressional Republicans have failed to confront his thrashing of America’s core interests and alliances.
It is not that Republicans have failed to utter a word of independent thought. Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham, Rob Portman, Marco Rubio, and John Cornyn, Pat Toomey, Johnny Isaakson, among others, have been prominent in condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine and Crimea, and in standing up for continued U.S. sanctions on Russia. But only the ailing McCain has systematically condemned Trump’s foreign policy of loving and appeasing dictators while sabotaging the post-World War II liberal order that has been the indispensable basis of international stability and U.S. national security.
Next Monday Trump will meet Vladimir Putin for his first summit meeting with the Russian leader. No one has any idea what President Trump might agree to or give away—including Trump himself, who, at a news conference yesterday before departing the NATO meeting, would not rule out canceling NATO exercises in the Baltic Sea (perhaps the alliance’s most vulnerable flank). As the ailing Senator McCain said yesterday while criticizing Trump’s blustering theatrics at the NATO summit, “It is up to President Trump to hold Putin accountable for his actions during the meeting in Helsinki. Failure to do so would be a serious indictment of his stewardship of American leadership in the world.”