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Trump’s nationalism looms over Europe’s WWI commemoration

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President Trump will join a group of more than 60 world leaders in France this weekend to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The war lives on in the Western imagination as a hideous (and arguably needless) conflict that killed millions, turned the fields of Europe into moonscapes, collapsed empires and prefigured an even bloodier war a generation later. Its memory and legacy still offer profound lessons for the present.

In hosting the ceremonies, French President Emmanuel Macron hopes to score a political point. World War I was a clash of violent nationalist passions, fueled by a coterie of power-hungry elites. Now there’s a rising tide of nationalism in Europe, with far-right leaders in Western Europe and illiberal statesmen in countries such as Hungary challenging the liberal ideals of the European Union and the cooperation and multilateralism that once guaranteed its prosperity.

Macron wants that story of unilateralism and conflict to be a cautionary tale for his contemporaries. “A survival-of-the-fittest approach does not protect any group of people against any kind of threat,” he said recently.

“We in the West, in particular, have been extremely lucky. We’ve lived through an extremely long period of peace,” said Oxford historian Margaret MacMillan to my colleagues. “The worry is that we take peace for granted and think it’s a normal state of affairs. We should reflect that sometimes wars do happen — and sometimes not for very good reasons.”

That message is unlikely to get through to Trump. His treaty busting and ally bullying have strained trans-Atlantic ties and encouraged Europe’s anti-establishment forces. His overt nationalism and embrace of protectionism, critics say, have undermined American leadership and called into question the future of the international order constructed by the United States after World War II.

Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and co-author of “The Empty Throne: America’s Abdication of Global Leadership,” said that while Trump and his counterparts are celebrating the end of what’s known as the Great War, they should “also reflect on America’s greatest mistake.” That is, a decision to eschew the internationalism of then-President Woodrow Wilson for the isolationism of his interwar successors.

Trump’s “America First” agenda also harks back to that historic withdrawal, when skepticism about foreign entanglements and fear of immigrants defined national policy at home and abroad. This circling of the wagons had significant geopolitical consequences.

“In the 1920s, conservative Presidents Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover rejected both binding alliances and the notion that America should make economic sacrifices to uphold the geopolitical order,” noted the Atlantic’s Peter Beinart in an essay earlier this year. “They saw little difference between Britain and France, which were more democratic, and Germany, which was more authoritarian," he continued, "and insisted that America remain independent from them all. They opposed Woodrow Wilson’s dream of requiring America to aid European nations threatened with aggression through the League of Nations.”

In 1919 and 1920, the U.S. Senate rejected signing the Treaty of Versailles and joining the League of Nations, the new international organization intended to stave off future bloody catastrophes. The American absence possibly doomed the project at its birth.

“Why would other societies invest in the agreement if one of its leading proponents, also one of the emerging world powers, refused to participate? Many observers appreciated the domestic politics behind the U.S. rejection of the treaty, but that only deepened long-standing perceptions that the United States was an unreliable partner," wrote Jeremy Suri, a historian at the University of Texas at Austin. "Why should others tie their hands if the United States acted as a free rider? In the decade after the First World War, U.S. actions encouraged unilateralism by other powerful actors, especially Japan, Germany, and the newly formed Soviet Union.”

Donning the steel helmets of the past, Trump has repeatedly championed his right to act unilaterally and sneered at international forums like the United Nations, the European Union and NATO. “For nationalists like John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, the League’s failure has become a byword for the futility of global governance,” wrote Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times. “In the 1930s, the League was completely unable to act as an effective check on the ambitions of imperial Japan, Mussolini’s Italy and Nazi Germany. The realist-nationalist view is that it was only hard power deployed by nation states — rather than global governance deployed by international institutions — that stood a chance of checking the ambitions of dictators.”

But this view gets it precisely backward, Daalder argued. It was the effects of American disengagement after World War I that convinced the next generation of U.S. strategists to build the international institutions and security pacts that defined the latter half of the 20th century and brought lasting peace to Europe. Now, as Daalder and his co-author James Lindsay write, Trump’s reckless foreign policy is hastening a new era of “ever-growing disarray” or even a “return to the world of the late 19th century” — the tinderbox that exploded into World War I.

“My big fear is that the return to nationalism and protectionism is likely to deepen divisions between countries, to erode norms and standards of behavior, and erode the element of cooperation that has been fundamental to U.S. security and prosperity,” Daalder told Today’s WorldView. “We know what great power rivalry looks like. We know where it ends up.”

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