It is hard to escape the feeling that we may be approaching a dangerous hinge in history. For roughly three quarters of a century, the most important pillar of peace and prosperity has been the seemingly unshakeable alliance of the world’s advanced liberal democracies. The core foundation of this complex architecture has been NATO—the most successful military alliance in history—but to this were added the treaties, U.S. troop deployments, and related commitments deterring aggression and ensuring peace in East Asia, particularly in the neighborhood of Japan, the Korean peninsula, Australia and New Zealand, effectively, Taiwan, and the Indo-Pacific sea lanes. The parallel in the Middle East has been our commitment to the security of Israel and to freedom of navigation in the Gulf. A crucial complement in recent decades has been the process of European integration, which has expanded both in functional and geographic scope to become the largest and wealthiest economic union in the world, with 28 member states. Freer trade more broadly among the world’s liberal democracies further deepened this architecture and its dual foundation in common interests and common values.
Today, most of this is at risk of unraveling. Having declared the collapse of the Soviet Union “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century,” Vladimir Putin has set as his primary geopolitical goal the breakup of the Western democratic alliance that prevailed over the USSR. For Putin, that has meant, above all else, undermining NATO and the EU. With his audacious and shockingly successful digital interventions in 2016—on behalf of the Brexit referendum in June and the election of Donald Trump to the U.S. presidency in November—Putin took giant leaps toward each of those goals. An isolationist with a coldly transactional view of international affairs, Trump has cast a skeptical eye on all of America’s alliances and international commitments. He appears obsessed with two questions, both lacking in a larger vision or even an understanding of global power: what’s in it for us and how much does it cost?
Now, we learn from the superb reporting of Helene Cooper of The New York Times that over the course of the last year President Trump repeatedly expressed to aides his desire to pull the U.S. out of NATO. These were private conversations. But in a jarring two-day summit with the alliance’s 28 other states last July, Trump publicly berated his fellow leaders for their failure to increase their countries’ defense spending sufficiently (while praising himself as a “stable genius”).
It was clear back then (and well before) that Trump questions the value of the NATO alliance. At the same time, he has had nothing but praise for the authoritarian leader of a resurgent and expansionist Russia, Vladimir Putin. Even if there proves to be nothing to the suspicions—which the FBI reportedly began investigating in the wake of the 2017 firing of its Director James Comey—that Trump is so financially, morally, or politically compromised by Russia that he is actually “working on behalf of Russia against American interests,” the damage that Trump has been doing to our alliances, and to global confidence in American resolve, is beginning practically to have the same effect. Certainly, Putin must feel he has received, on balance, a handsome return on his “investment” in the 2016 U.S. elections. And as if to drive home the point that the Kremlin’s malign projection of power around the world will be embraced by the White House rather than confronted, the Trump Administration’s effort to lift sanctions on the businesses of one of Putin’s most important oligarchs—the infamous aluminum magnate Oleg Deripaska—just narrowly survived a Senate vote to reverse this latest concession to Russian corruption.
The legislative bid, pressed by a unanimous Senate Democratic caucus, to reverse Trump’s action drew support from 11 mostly quite conservative Republicans—perhaps most surprisingly Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who has been close to Trump and who is rumored to be interested in the position of Defense Secretary (or even in succeeding Trump in the White House). One wonders what was running through the minds of so many of the other 42 Senate Republicans who have prided themselves for their tough stances on national security, senators like Lindsey Graham, Ted Cruz, Joni Ernst, and the newly elected Mitt Romney. It seems the party of Ronald Reagan has fallen so low into supine submission to an isolationist populist president that it now supports a corporate amnesty for one of the shadiest oligarchs in Putin’s Russia—a man who Trump’s own Treasury Department had sanctioned as a key agent of the Russian government, and who stood accused of “threatening the lives of business rivals, illegally wiretapping a government official, and taking part in extortion and racketeering.”
Trump likes to brags about how tough he has been on Russia. And indeed, thanks to smart, tough-minded officials like Defense Secretary James Mattis and National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster, the Trump Administration fashioned during its first two years a robust response to Russia’s escalating efforts to compromise the sovereignty and institutional integrity of democracies, both in its neighborhood and well beyond. However, as our former ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, observed on Wednesday, Trump “has consistently made it clear that he does not support his own administration’s policy toward Russia.” Now, apparently unable to abide Trump’s isolationism and impetuousness any longer, Secretary Mattis is gone—having resigned on principle and then been fired by Trump before he could leave in an orderly fashion. McMaster has also been forced out, and with him another key intellectual author of the much-needed 2017 reboot of America’s National Security Strategy, Nadia Schadlow.
That well-received document advanced a wise and energetic strategy for a new era of great power competition with Russia and China. It pronounced a posture of “principled realism,” acknowledging “the central role of power in international politics,” while celebrating and clearly stating the principles we must use power to defend: “individual liberty, the rule of law, a democratic system of government, tolerance, and opportunity for all.” Those are indeed the values that distinguish and unite Americans, and that undergird the alliances that have produced the longest period of peace with freedom and prosperity in modern world history. Sadly, however, these are not the values of President Donald J. Trump. They are not what emanate from his tweets and other unscripted words, and increasingly, they do not reflect his erratic and tempestuous conduct on the world stage.
As a result, the next two years threaten to be one of the most perilous periods for the United States since the end of World War II. The rising and resurgent great powers—China and Russia—see in Donald Trump a transactional president, detached from the guiding principles and steadfast alliances that have fostered and protected freedom for 75 years. For the moment, China is paying the price in an escalating and potentially quite damaging trade war, but if it is able to negotiate a grand transaction with Trump, it may also clear a path to more rapid dominance in Asia. Trump talks a big game about putting America first, but for him, it’s really all about money, not even power and certainly not global leadership in defense of enduring values.
As the government shutdown staggers on and the Mueller investigation enters its final phase, unthinkable scenarios become imaginable: a declaration of national emergency, impeachment, a constitutional showdown. Quite possibly, we are headed into a stress test for American democracy that will equal or exceed Watergate. But much more than in the Nixon era (which confronted its own serious dangers internationally), a domestic constitutional crisis would unfold in a global context of profound turbulence, with two great power rivals ready to exploit any sign of fracture in America’s alliances or equivocation in our readiness to defend them.
As both a constitutional and practical matter, the President has wide latitude to make and unmake foreign affairs. Now, as his recklessness and impulsiveness are more sharply revealed, and as the constraints from within his own administration melt away, Republicans in Congress must rally to the defense of our vital national interests. Above all else, that requires a veto-proof majority for legislation tying the president’s hands in any effort to withdraw from NATO. To borrow the terms of the President’s own National Security Strategy, failure to do so could have grave and long-lasting consequences for our security, our prosperity, and our way of life.