Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) at the Russell Senate Office Building in Washington. (Matt McClain/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) already had released excerpts of a floor speech planned for Thursday when the administration announced a settlement with Chinese company ZTE. The contrast between a fine and reprieve for a rival country’s telecom giant (one that was caught violating sanctions and suspected of spying on Americans) and Trump’s angry rhetoric and tariff confrontation with our closest allies provides a stunning illustration of a faulty mind-set that Republicans have previously attributed to Democrats — excessive deference to rivals and undue hostility toward allies.

Appearing on CNN, Flake chastised the president for ignoring “significant” national security issues when it comes to ZTE while cooking up a national security justification so that he can go around Congress to pass protectionist legislation.

In excerpts of remarks released in advance of the speech, Flake does not mince words. He asks: “What shall our friends make of such erratic behavior? How will they respond to such confusing actions? And, most importantly, how long will they remain our friends if this irrational approach continues?” He continues, “Alliances, institutions, pacts, that took generations to patiently build, generations more to solidify, that were paid for in both blood and treasure, are shattered in an ill-tempered second, an ill-considered tantrum, a childish taunt here, a bellicose insult there.” In words that could easily be applied to any foreign policy topic, Flake rails: “Muddled and mercurial, this is not grown-up leadership. Our allies are left baffled, confounded, often appalled. Make no mistake, our allies and those who look to American leadership will not wait for us to come to our senses.”

Flake will find some sympathetic Democrats. “President Trump should be aiming his trade fire at China, but instead he inexplicably aims it at allies like Canada, Mexico and Europe. When it comes to China, despite his tough talk, this deal with ZTE proves the president just shoots blanks,” Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) declared in a written statement. “There is absolutely no good reason that ZTE should get a second chance, and this decision marks a 180 degree turn away from the president’s promise to be tough on China. It’s up to Congress now to act to reverse the deal.”

In another bit of fortuitous timing, Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R), who seems to be contemplating a challenge of some sort to Trump, writes in Foreign Affairs: “Although American leaders should always put American interests first, that does not mean that we have to build walls, close off markets, or isolate the United States by acting in ways that alienate our allies. Continuing to do that will not insulate us from external challenges; it will simply turn us into bystanders with less and less influence.” That’s about as good a description of Trump’s ill-named America First policy — a mishmash of protectionism, xenophobia, excessive cordiality to foes and disregard for American values — as it gets.

Kasich makes a persuasive call for constructive U.S. engagement in the world:

To secure our economic future, we must prepare our workers for the future rather than retreat into protectionism. To deal with global threats — from Russian aggression to nuclear proliferation to cyberattacks — we need to harden our defenses and reinvigorate our alliances. To fight terrorism, we must be more discerning about when to commit American power and insist that our allies bear more of the burden. To deal with the rise of China, we must strike the right balance between cooperation and confrontation. In other words, the world needs more American engagement, not less.

And like Flake, he bashes Trump’s counterproductive tariffs: “We should not have to resort to heavy-handed tariffs and quotas in order to get our partners to start taking our concerns seriously. To reduce jobs losses from trade, we need an expedited process, free of bureaucratic delays, to review trade violations and stop them when they occur. But we must also undertake new efforts that help people obtain the skills they need for the jobs of the future. Trade was not responsible for the majority of American job losses in the last generation; technology was. That trend will only accelerate.” He describes protectionism as a dodge from the steps we need to take domestically to improve our workforce and embrace face-paced change. He concludes:

If the United States continues to go it alone, however, that will only open up further opportunities for nations that do not have our best interests at heart, such as China and Russia, to shape our future for us. That’s why it was such a mistake for the Trump administration to turn its back on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which would have eliminated 18,000 foreign tariffs currently imposed on products that Americans make and seek to sell overseas. Those tariffs hold back job creation, and eliminating them could unleash new growth across the United States. We shouldn’t have threatened to jettison the North American Free Trade Agreement or the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement either. Instead, we should work with our neighbors and partners to modernize these agreements, which are essential to our economic security and global influence. On trade, as on many other issues, the goal should be to find win-win solutions, not to make threats and try to divide and conquer.

But Trump is all about zero-sum politics and economics. He thrives on confrontation for the sake of confrontation and shows little interest or ability in thinking through the consequences of his policies.

Unfortunately, only a handful of Republican politicians are willing to clearly make out the case for defense of the international liberal order that has benefited the United States for 70-plus years. If the GOP were to jettison Trump and Trumpism, the optimistic, constructive vision that Flake and Kasich lay out might have an opportunity to flourish. Unfortunately, the GOP is now Trump’s party — the party of incoherence, economic illiteracy, pessimism and self-destructive bravado. Democrats, if they choose to seize it, have quite an opening to be the grown-up party we presently lack.