President Trump doesn't seem to understand why anyone would put their long-term values ahead of their short-term interests. Which, when you think about it, might be one reason he seems to prefer dictators to democratically elected leaders — they only have interests.
Unlike, say, French President Emmanuel Macron. Indeed, according to my colleague Josh Rogin, Macron recently turned down Trump's offer for France to leave the European Union in return for a better trade deal from the United States, because, well, of course he did. France isn't about to throw away its 60-year project to make another European war impossible just so it can sell us some more wine. It's insulting to even ask.
Not that Trump seems to understand. How could he when he erroneously believes that the E.U. was “set up to take advantage of the United States”? Nothing could be further from the truth. It was about stopping Europe's new 30 years' war from turning into a 40 or 50 or even 60 years' one. Back then, you see, the Marshall Plan had been enough to jump-start a recovery in Western Europe, but not the self-sustaining one that its still-precarious democracies needed. The problem was that Europe's economic engine — Germany — hadn't been allowed to restart. The rest of the continent still didn't trust it. And so they were stuck. As much as they might have feared Germany as a rival, they needed it as a trading partner. That meant they could either try imposing another Carthaginian peace on Germany — because Versailles had worked so well, right? — or try to come up with another, less punitive way to make Germany safe for the rest of Europe.
It started with coal and steel. The idea, as French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman put it in 1950, was to make another war between France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.” So to that end, he proposed putting all of their separate coal and steel production under a single transnational authority. That would not only let the rest of Europe get the raw materials it needed from Germany without having to wonder what it was using them for, but also give them the market they needed to sell things in. It took two years for Schuman's vision to come to fruition, but when it did, the European Coal and Steel Community was as much of a success as could have been hoped.
From a single market for coal and steel, it wasn't that big of a leap to a single market for everything else. The result, in 1957, was the European Economic Community, which was the precursor to the European Union itself. It took awhile for it to be expanded beyond its six original members — France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg — but when it did, it codified the values of cooperation and integration into Europe's DNA. That's not to say, though, that the E.U. hasn't been without its faults. Its reliance on bureaucratically created rules rather than democratically enacted laws has created a lack of legitimacy for its grander ambitions of an “ever closer union.” Its decision to go beyond a single market to a single currency has caused the exact type of problem — persistently high unemployment in some countries — that economists warned it would. But on balance, the E.U. has still been one of the biggest contributors to peace and prosperity there has ever been.
The E.U., of course, is far from the only international organization Trump has a problem with. The same could be said for pretty much all of them: NATO, NAFTA, the WTO — if there's an acronym or initialism involved, chances are Trump hates it. What they all have in common, other than being the subject of Trump's 280-character rebukes, is that they were set up in the postwar period to try to stabilize the world by aligning it with our long-term values. We understood that creating a rules-based order that constrained us in some ways still served our long-term interests better than anything else could, because we wouldn't have to bully other countries to be a part of it. They would want to be.
Trump, though, doesn't see these benefits. He sees only the costs. To him, everything is just a transaction where there's a winner and a loser. There's no such thing as something that makes everyone better off. Which is why he's not only trying to tear down the liberal international order we've worked so hard to build the past 70 years — and, in the case of Canada, over dairy tariffs! — but also can't understand why anyone wouldn't want to go along with it. What could be more important than trying to sell more stuff?
It's a question Russian President Vladimir Putin and every other dictator has wanted us to ask for a long time now. That's because creating a world based on interests rather than values really means our values won't get in the way of their interests — even if those are, say, annexing part of a neighboring country.
“America First” means our values last.