President Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing on Nov. 9, 2017. (Fred Dufour/AFP/Getty Images)
Editorial page editor

What if the West found itself “engaged in a fundamental contest between our free and open societies and closed and repressive systems” — and the U.S. president was on the wrong side?

This is not a hypothetical question.

I heard the first part last week directly from the man who was still, at the time, President Trump’s national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster.

And though he was too polite and dutiful to say so, I thought I could hear in his parting shot a warning about the second part also: “It is time we expose those who glamorize and apologize in the service of communist, authoritarian and repressive governments.”

McMaster’s final address as a public official, at the Atlantic Council, was noted mostly for being tough on Russia, which it was, and candid about the West’s inadequate response to Russian provocations, which it also was.

It was careful to praise the president’s National Security Strategy (the formulation of which McMaster oversaw) and to insist that Trump “has repeatedly told the truth about these murderous regimes and oppressive doctrines.”

But in fact it was about much more than Russia. McMaster’s warning was more global, his estimation of the stakes more existential — and his vision so far removed from Trump’s values-free, zero-sum approach to America in the world that it came across as a call to action to everyone else who may be called upon to defend democracy.

“Revisionist and repressive powers are attempting to undermine our values, our institutions, and our way of life,” the general said.

“We are presently engaged in competitions with repressive and authoritarian systems to defend our way of life, to preserve our free and open societies,” he said. “We must be confident. We must be active. We cannot be passive and hope that others will defend our freedom.”

It was striking that McMaster chose as the setting for his last stand a dinner honoring the leaders of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania. During their half- ­century of occupation by the Soviet Union, from 1940 to 1991, the United States never recognized the Soviet claim over them. In the quarter- ­century since, the Baltic republics have been exemplars of democratic reconstruction, even as Russia has harassed them from the east and larger countries to their west, such as Poland, have faltered in their commitment to liberal democracy.

Now, as McMaster suggested, the democratic model is under more pressure than at any time since the Cold War.

China’s Communist rulers offer their regime as an alternative that can deliver economic growth with totalitarian control. Strongmen in nations that had moved toward electoral democracy, such as Egypt and Russia, have just engineered sham reelections by locking up their most plausible opponents. U.S. allies that had seemed firmly in the democratic camp, including Thailand and Turkey, have slid back to authoritarianism.

“Democracy faced its most serious crisis in decades in 2017,” Freedom House reported in January. “Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains.”

Ordinarily, at such a time, the world would look to America for leadership. But, Freedom House said, the United States has “retreated from its traditional role as both a champion and an exemplar of democracy.”

That retreat has been woven from dozens of statements, policy changes and missed opportunities from a president who famously seems to admire and, yes, glamorize dictators more than democrats: cheering when China’s ruler declared himself president for life (“I think it’s great”); laughing with the Philippines’ strongman as he demonized reporters; congratulating Egypt’s dictator for his sham reelection; itching to withdraw from Syria to leave that field to Iran and Russia; abandoning human rights improvement as a policy objective anywhere in the world; proposing to gut funding for the National Endowment for Democracy; failing to nominate an assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor; and so on.

It could be worse. The administration, including as recently as Friday, has imposed sanctions on Russians for their misbehavior; it has provided weapons to Ukraine, and it decided not to abandon Afghanistan. Even without U.S. help, democracy survives or flourishes around the world, from Colombia to Indonesia, because human beings do cherish freedom.

But any urgency to “advance our values and defend our way of life,” which McMaster called essential, is absent from this White House.

“The victory of free societies is not predestined,” the general warned. “There’s nothing inevitable about the course of human events and history. And there is no arc of history, there is no so-called end of history, that will ensure our success.”

Read more from Fred Hiatt’s archive, follow him on Twitter or subscribe to his updates on Facebook.