The alliance between the United States and Western Europe has accomplished great things. It won two world wars in the first half of the 20th century. Then it expanded to include its former enemies and went on to win the Cold War, help spread democracy and build the highest living standards the world has ever known.
President Donald Trump is trying to destroy that alliance.
Is that how he thinks about it? Who knows. It’s impossible to get inside his head and divine his strategic goals, if he even has long-term goals. But put it this way: If a president of the United States were to sketch out a secret, detailed plan to break up the Atlantic alliance, that plan would bear a striking resemblance to Trump’s behavior.
It would involve outward hostility to the leaders of Canada, Britain, France, Germany and Japan. Specifically, it would involve picking fights over artificial issues — not to win big concessions for the United States, but to create conflict for the sake of it.
A secret plan to break up the West would also have the United States looking for new allies to replace the discarded ones. The most obvious would be Russia, the biggest rival within Europe to Germany, France and Britain. And just as Russia does, a United States intent on wrecking the Atlantic alliance would meddle in the domestic politics of other countries to install new governments that also rejected the old alliance.
Check. Check. Check. Check. Trump is doing every one of these things.
He chose not to attend the full G-7 meeting, in Quebec, over the weekend. While he was there, he picked fights. By now, you’ve probably seen the photograph released by the German government — of Trump sitting down, with eyebrows raised and crossed arms, while Germany’s Angela Merkel and other leaders stand around him, imploring. Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister, wears a look of defeat.
No wonder. The meeting’s central disagreements were over tariffs that Trump has imposed for false reasons. He claims that he’s merely responding to other countries. But the average current tariff of the United States, Britain, Germany and France is identical, according to the World Bank: 1.6 percent. Japan’s is 1.4 percent, and Canada’s is 0.8 percent. Yes, every country has a few objectionable tariffs, but they’re small — and the United States is not a victim here.
So Trump isn’t telling the truth about trade, much as he has lied about Barack Obama’s birthplace, his own position on the Iraq War, his inauguration crowd, voter fraud, the murder rate, Mexican immigrants, the Russian investigation, the Stormy Daniels hush money and several hundred other subjects. The tariffs aren’t a case of his identifying a real problem but describing it poorly. He is threatening the Atlantic alliance over a lie.
If you need more evidence, look at his tweets after leaving the summit. Close readers of Trump’s Twitter feed (and I don’t envy that title) have learned that he often accuses others of committing his own sins. On Saturday, he called Justin Trudeau, Canada’s prime minister, “very dishonest.”
While Trudeau and other historical allies get disdain, Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong Un and various aspiring authoritarians are bathed in praise. Trump and his aides have promoted far-right politicians in Germany and elsewhere.
In Quebec, he made excuses for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and argued that Russia should be readmitted to the G-7. Jay Nordlinger, the conservative writer, asked, “Why is he talking like an RT host?” — RT being Russia Today, a government-funded television network.
I don’t know the answer. But it’s past time to take seriously the only explanation for all of Trump’s behavior: He wants to destroy the Western alliance.
Maybe it’s ideological, and he prefers Putin-style authoritarianism to democracy. Or maybe he has no grand strategy and Putin really does have some compromising information. Or maybe Trump just likes being against what every other modern American president was for.
Whatever the reason, his behavior requires a response that’s as serious as the threat. As political scientist Brendan Nyhan pointed out, last weekend felt like a turning point: “The Western alliance and the global trading system are coming under the same intense strain that Trump has created for our domestic institutions.”
For America’s longtime allies, the response means shedding the hopeful optimism that characterized the early approach taken by Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron, France’s president. Merkel is the right role model. She has been tougher, without needlessly escalating matters, because she has understood the threat all along.
For Trump’s fellow Republicans, it means putting country over party. A few Republicans, like John McCain, offered appropriately alarmed words in the past two days. Now members of Congress need to do more than send anguished tweets. They should offer legislation that would restrain Trump and hold hearings meant to uncover his motives.
For American voters, it means understanding the real stakes of this year’s midterm elections. They are not merely a referendum on a tax cut, a heath care plan or a president’s unorthodox style. They are a referendum on American ideals that are older than any of us.
David Leonhardt is a columnist for The New York Times. Reach him c/o The New York Times, Editorial Department, 620 8th Ave., New York, NY 10018. © 2018 New York Times News Service