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COLUMNISTS POLITICS & IDEASTrump Threatens the Postwar Order
America’s role as a beacon of freedom and democracy is being jeopardized.
By WILLIAM A. GALSTON
Nov. 15, 2016 6:56 p.m. ET
Donald Trump’s election threatens the world order the United States has nurtured and led for the past 70 years.
In the wake of World War I, Americans rejected continued foreign engagement and turned inward, opening up a space that anti-democratic movements were happy to fill.
As World War II drew to a close, American statesmen were determined not to repeat this fateful mistake. They took the lead in building a network of alliances and institutions to promote an open economic order, international security and universal human rights. When the Soviet Union signaled its intention to oppose these objectives, longstanding disagreements about America’s role in the world gave way to bipartisan support for active engagement.
As American administrations of both parties executed this strategy, they made some grievous errors—costly, unproductive regional wars and alliances with unsavory dictators, among others. Still, the balance sheet is clear: The world the United States has led since the 1940s is more prosperous, more secure and more democratic than it would have been had we stood aside.
Every American president since Franklin Roosevelt has pursued some version of this strategy—until now. If the stated positions to which Donald Trump has adhered consistently for decades are to be believed, he rejects America’s postwar project, root and branch. He believes that our security alliances are more trouble than they are worth. He believes that the freer flow of goods, capital and people harms the United States. And he insists that our country has no interest in promoting democracy and human rights beyond our shores. (We will find out whether he is committed to these principles even within our borders.)
Of most immediate concern is the president-elect’s skeptical stance toward the world’s most important security alliance—the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, one of whose provisions commits all member states to come to the aid of any member under attack. This provision (Article 5) has been invoked only once since NATO came into existence in 1951—in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on America.
During the Republican primary contest, Mr. Trump repeatedly called the trans-Atlantic alliance “obsolete.” Although he subsequently insisted that he wants to preserve it, his remarks after securing the nomination were less than reassuring. Any ally that doesn’t “reasonably reimburse” the United States for the cost of its defense will be told, “Congratulations, you are defending yourself.”
The crabbed, balance-sheet approach to the Western alliance ignores the enormous advantages the United States reaps from the existence of other democracies. Yes, our allies should contribute more to the common defense, as just about every past president has insisted. But no U.S. president has ever said (none ever should) that if they fail to do so, we will pull the plug. A man famously proficient in the “art of the deal” should know not to use threats that would be self-defeating if put into practice.
This brings us to the deeper difficulty: Mr. Trump seems not to believe that the undermining of democratic governments represents a defeat for American interests. This is why he can view with equanimity a rapprochement with Vladimir Putin that would jeopardize Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, not to mention the independence of the Baltics.
If the president-elect believes that we would come to the aid of Latvia, Lithuania or Estonia when Mr. Putin expands his revanchist threats, he had better make this clear very soon. Otherwise it is only a matter of time before Russia’s strongman puts him to the test.
Tellingly, just about every autocrat in the world rushed to extend his support for Mr. Trump as soon as it had become clear that he would be the next U.S. president. Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, the first Arab leader to congratulate the president-elect, said that his presidency would “pump new life” into Egyptian-American relations.
Egypt’s president had good reason to be optimistic. When he met with Mr. Trump in September during the United Nations General Assembly meeting, the then-Republican nominee did not even bring up Egypt’s human-rights record. Instead, Mr. Trump called Al Sisi a “fantastic guy” who “took control of Egypt. And he really took control of it.” Never mind what has happened since.
This was no random episode. During his campaign, Mr. Trump insisted that America shouldn’t lecture other countries about democracy and human rights. No wonder Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping have responded so glowingly to his ascension. No wonder Hungary’s Viktor Orban, an open advocate of “illiberal democracy,” has praised Mr. Trump’s opposition to “democracy export.”
For those Americans—Democrats and Republicans—who cherish America’s global role as a beacon of freedom and democracy, a Trump presidency presents a clear and present danger. Leaders in both parties must meet this challenge head-on before Mr. Trump irreparably damages our cause.