President Trump is trying his damnedest to undermine our democratic institutions, but he is largely failing. While he may demand that members of his own party be exempt from criminal prosecution — a demand that if granted would, as Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) notes, turn America into a banana republic — the Justice Department has indicted two of his leading congressional supporters anyway.
So I am confident that democracy in the United States will survive the Trump presidency. But I am a lot less confident about the survival of the American-led liberal world order.
That is, in part, because American hegemony was already waning when Trump took office. China, not the United States, now has the world’s largest navy. That’s not Trump’s fault, and indeed he is raising defense spending, although not enough to tilt the balance of power in Asia. Nor is it Trump’s fault that most Americans became weary of foreign interventions after the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What is Trump’s fault is that he is pursuing an unprecedented policy of humiliating, denigrating and undermining our closest allies in ways that are likely to do irreparable harm to relationships that have taken decades to build.
Consider Canada. The way Trump is treating our northern neighbor is, as a former U.S. ambassador to Ottawa said, “the definition of insanity.” Canada is America’s largest trade partner and the closest of security partners. Canadian troops have fought alongside Americans from World War I to the war in Afghanistan, and it is a close partner in everything from intelligence sharing (the Five Eyes Alliance) to air defense (the North American Aerospace Defense Command).
Yet Trump insists on treating Canada as the enemy, imposing steel and aluminum tariffs to protect U.S. “national security.” In off-the-record comments to Bloomberg News, Trump insisted that any revamp of the North American Free Trade Agreement would be “totally on our terms ” and that if Canada balked at his unreasonable demands, he would impose tariffs on Canadian-produced vehicles. That makes no sense because such tariffs would hurt American companies such as General Motors, which produces Chevrolet Impalas at a plant in Ontario. Trump is oblivious to the fact that Canada is America’s largest export market and that we actually run a trade surplus with Canada.
It’s hard to know what’s behind Trump’s enmity against Canada, unless he simply resents the fact that its prime minister, Justin Trudeau, is younger, smarter and handsomer. Trump walked out of the Group of Seven summit early in June, blasting Trudeau as “very dishonest & weak,” while his trade adviser Peter Navarro said there is a “special place in hell” for Trudeau. Contrast such scathing comments with Trump’s obsequiousness toward dictators such as Vladimir Putin (“a strong leader”) or Kim Jong-un (“strong,” “funny,” “smart”).
Trump’s attitude toward Canada is sadly typical of the way he treats America’s friends. In July, just before his surrender to Putin in Helsinki, Trump berated and belittled America’s NATO allies. Guy Verhofstadt, a former Belgian prime minister, called his trip “an unmitigated disaster,” and Germany’s foreign minister, Heiko Maas, said, “We can no longer fully rely on the White House.”
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has tried to cultivate Trump, but he has little to show for it: Trump hasn’t exempted Japan from steel and aluminum tariffs, and he has ignored Abe’s advice against making unilateral concessions to North Korea such as canceling military exercises. According to The Post, Trump insulted Abe by telling him, “I remember Pearl Harbor” (Trump was born in 1946) and berating him for a litany of largely imaginary trade offenses that hark back to the 1980s.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo are in New Delhi this week cultivating a potentially important new ally, but their task is vastly complicated by Trump’s disrespectful behavior toward Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The New York Times notes: “A video of Mr. Trump imitating Mr. Modi has gone viral in New Delhi. So have reports that Mr. Trump often mimics his Indian counterpart in internal discussions.” So Trump’s juvenile antics could imperil an alliance that the United States needs to counter China.
Virtually the only allies that Trump has close relationships with are Saudi Arabia and Israel — in the former case because it’s not a democracy, in the latter because of his own domestic political needs. (Republicans love Israel, and Jewish conservatives such as Sheldon Adelson are big donors.) But giving a blank check to Israel in its settler policies, and to Saudi Arabia in its battles with Yemen, Qatar, domestic dissidents and even Canada, is not helpful to America’s long-term interest — or even Saudi Arabia’s and Israel’s.
Far from making the United States respected, as he often claims, Trump is turning it into a worldwide object of mockery and scorn, fear and loathing. The damage won’t easily be undone even if he is replaced by a saner successor. Other nations will always know that there is a market in America for isolationism and protectionism, and that we are always one election away from putting another populist rabble-rouser in power. Why would any ally trust the United States ever again?