Three months later, Trump upbraided another American ally. On April 20, he signed an executive order calling for an investigation into whether foreign steel is a national-security threat to the United States. The executive order was aimed at China and Japan, but the president took the opportunity to lambast . . . Canada. “We can’t let Canada or anybody else take advantage and do what they did to our workers and to our farmers,” he said. Calling Canada’s trade conduct with the U.S. a “disgrace,” Trump added, “We’re going to have to get to the negotiating table with Canada very, very quickly.” Five days later, he fired the first shot in what might become a trade war with our neighbor to the north, putting a 20 percent tariff on Canadian lumber entering the United States. “People don’t realize Canada has been really rough with the United States,” he said. “We don’t want to be taken advantage of by other countries, and that’s stopping, and that’s stopping fast.”
Then there’s President Trump’s treatment of South Korea. During the same week he engaged in that contretemps with Canada, Trump threatened to pull out of the U.S.’s “horrible” trade deal with South Korea unless it was renegotiated to his satisfaction. Shares in the Hyundai Motor Company fell by 2.4 percent on the news of Trump’s comments. Far more significant, Trump told Reuters he wanted South Korea to pay for the $1 billion Terminal High Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system the United States had already begun installing in Seongju. According to an earlier agreement, the cost of the system would be covered by the United States.
THAAD is intended to protect South Korea (and U.S. forces stationed there) in the event of missile attack from the North, and Trump’s statement came at a time of peak tension on the Korean Peninsula. The Kim regime in Pyongyang had recently carried out a series of proscribed missile tests, conducted massive military drills, and made repeated threats to its neighbors and the United States. The South Koreans reacted to Trump’s comment with alarm, publicly expressing regret about the questionable reliability of their American ally. Days later, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster reassured his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. would pay for the system as promised. Trump’s remark, however, helped deliver the South Korean presidency to the America-skeptical Moon Jae-in and has left Seoul with doubts about U.S. credibility.
Australia, Canada, South Korea. These democratic countries are not merely strategic allies of the United States. They, and others, are our geopolitical siblings or cousins, members of a multi-nation family once widely described as the “free world.” Led by the United States, the free world (briefly allied with the un-free Soviet Union) defeated Nazism and Fascism in World War II. It then eradicated Soviet Communism in the decades-long Cold War. With a common belief in the virtues of political freedom and its defense, these countries have shared a mutual obligation to look out for one another through treaties, trade deals, military alliances, and so on. But judging from Trump’s moves and the responses they’ve elicited, our international family seems headed for a period of estrangement.
While much of this tension is attributable to the unprecedented behavior of the new American president, the truth is that the “free world” has been suffering an identity crisis since the end of the Cold War. Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, diluted the concept in his own way—slighting or undermining democratic allies and publicly downplaying the significance of an American-led liberal world order. We’ve not arrived at this unfortunate pass suddenly, but gradually. And the problems ahead will likewise unfold by degrees.
The term “the free world” has served both as a propaganda tool and a straightforward description of reality. As propaganda, the idea is spent. There is no state-sponsored threat to freedom on the order of the Soviet Union. There is, therefore, no corresponding rallying cry to pull together and fight in the name of liberty. Americans recognize foreign threats to national security in the form of ISIS or al-Qaeda but judge correctly that these groups pose no ideological challenge to Western liberalism comparable to Communism. In the West, radical Islam is viewed as a military or policing matter, not as a specious alternative to our way of life. There will always be a tiny, deluded fringe of Westerners who turn against their own in the name of jihad, but in the West, we need not prove liberalism superior to radical Islam.
Similarly, we recognize a nuclear North Korea as a threat to our well-being, perhaps even to our existence. While we work to minimize that threat through diplomatic and military channels, we also hope to reduce the great suffering of Kim’s victims. But, again, we don’t see North Korea as a challenge to our creed or as a rival for the hearts and minds of suffering peoples everywhere. The surreal North Korean state ideology, Juche, is not being exported. The point here is that terrorists and rogue states must have their ambitions thwarted regardless of the virtues of political freedom. Stopping them doesn’t demand much in the way of Why We Fight-style propaganda.
But as a simple description of those countries that still hold freedom dear, the “free world” is very much alive if not altogether well. As of 2016, the non–profit Freedom House listed 86 countries as both free and democratic. These countries more or less make up the free world. The list is fluid. Some members may slip off while others join, but the core has always been made up of the United States and its Western democratic allies. With the fall of the Soviet Union, these countries were left to struggle with questions about their role in the world. Those questions remained unanswered, and democracies settled into an ill-defined globalism whose benefits (relative peace and improved quality of life) were unsatisfying to many, even if they were real.
That dissatisfaction has in part contributed to a new paradigm. The global bipolarity of the Cold War, with Communist powers on one side and democratic ones on the other, has been replaced by a domestic bipolarity within free societies. Western publics have now split along a nationalist-internationalist, or establishment-outsider, axis. From the Brexit vote in England to the rise of nationalist parties throughout Europe to the election of Donald Trump, the outsider-nationalists are disrupting business as usual from within the free world.
The wave of populism has revealed a new set of priorities for citizens of the West. Populists are not as concerned with foreign threats to political freedom as they are with threats to national culture through immigration and threats to employment from foreign labor and factory relocation. Populism, at its heart, gives voice to the contention that the little man is being swindled by powerful elites. Populists believe that the con is global and is being implemented through internationalist politicians and trans-national corporations looking to line their pockets at the expense of the common worker. Seen this way, mutually beneficial trade deals among friends are fictions. They’re nothing more than liberal fairy tales designed to keep the working class ignorant of the truth: that they’re being had.
American populists think of themselves as being on the losing end of bad deals. Who better, then, to champion their cause and rectify their problem than Donald Trump? Having erected an outsize self-mythology as the world’s greatest dealmaker, Trump is now ostensibly putting his talent to work for struggling Americans. This means denouncing, renegotiating, or ripping up free-trade deals with America’s allies.
The most immediate problem with this is that it’s unlikely to do much good for the populists who want it. Placing serious tariffs on imports will raise their prices inside the United States. When those price hikes are attached to raw materials, such as Canadian lumber, they’ll get passed down to the consumer. While the well-off can easily pay more for a new door or desk, higher prices will sting those further down the income ladder. What’s more, countries hit by Trump’s tariffs will place comparable tariffs of their own on imports from the United States. The higher costs to U.S. exporters will lead to layoffs.
There are other dangers. If the president deals the U.S. out of friendly trade relations with allies, opportunistic countries are sure to capitalize on the possibilities. China would be more than happy to fill market needs once satisfied by American goods and services. This will create further problems because economic cooperation spurs political cooperation. When our neglected allies form trade partnerships with our antagonists, our former friends will be more likely to favor their new partners in matters of policy. This is how American influence dies.
Trump’s animus toward allies goes beyond trade, as his quarrels with Australia and South Korea make plain. These disagreements, too, are expressions of populism. Populists see most international relationships as zero-sum. If the United States is cooperating with an ally, they believe, Americans are probably being taken advantage of for the benefit of foreigners. Trump has repeatedly called on America’s allies, specifically NATO countries, to “pay their fair share” for defense. His eruptions over Australia’s refugees and THAAD in South Korea are in keeping with this complaint. But without an American commitment to defend them, weaker allies will become fair game for exploitation and invasion.
Trump has augmented his hostility toward the free world with an unseemly indifference, or even openness, toward freedom’s enemies. Before we begin to explore this problem, a caveat is in order. It’s important not to make too much too soon either of the connections between Trump’s associates and Moscow or Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin. In the first place, no one has offered proof of any quid pro quo between Trump and the Russians, unsettling appearances notwithstanding. In the second, Trump has not as yet acted in a way that would suggest he’s looking to do Putin’s bidding. To the contrary, he’s called for a large increase in military spending, put Russia’s ally Iran on notice, and breathed new life into American oil and gas projects. Moreover, after labeling NATO “obsolete” during his campaign, President Trump has been vocal about the alliance’s importance, and his White House has issued statements welcoming NATO’s further expansion. All of the above serves to frustrate Putin’s plans for the projection of Russian power.
If Trump has a sense of what makes Ukraine or the United States more just than Putin’s Russia, he’s shown no evidence of it. In fact, he evinces no appreciation for the probity of the free world. Such a failing in an American president will not leave the cause of liberty unharmed.
That said, Trump’s effusive praise for the Russian strongman could be a harbinger of policy to come. Trump has called Putin “a man so highly respected within his own country and beyond” and given him an “A” for leadership. In 2015, he contrasted Putin favorably with Obama. “At least he’s a leader, unlike what we have in this country,” Trump said. The record of praise is long and colorful, but two quotes in particular are plainly alarming. In 2014, on Fox News, Trump offered his take on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: “You look at what [Putin]’s doing. And so smart. When you see the riots in a country because they’re hurting the Russians, okay, ‘We’ll go and take it over.’ And he really goes step by step by step, and you have to give him a lot of credit.” Put more clearly, Trump not only claimed to believe Putin’s invented justification for the invasion—to help Russians inside Ukraine—but also admired the swift and violent breach of Ukraine’s sovereignty. Ukraine, it must be noted, is one of Freedom House’s free and democratic countries. It is a member of the free world. If Trump remains indifferent to its fate, Putin can choose his next target with impunity.
In the second alarming statement, which Trump made after he was elected president, he slighted another member of the free world: the United States. On Super Bowl Sunday 2017, Fox News aired an interview during which Bill O’Reilly probed Trump on his stated “respect” for the Russian leader. “Putin is a killer,” O’Reilly pointed out. Trump’s response: “There are a lot of killers. We have a lot of killers. Well, you think our country is so innocent?” If Donald Trump has a sense of what makes Ukraine or the United States better and more just than Putin’s Russia, he’s shown no evidence of it. In fact, he evinces no appreciation whatsoever for the probity of the free world. Such a failing in an American president will not leave the cause of liberty unharmed.
Trump is courting other oppressive leaders as well. He has reached out to Viktor Orban, Hungary’s authoritarian prime minister. In November, the staunchly anti-immigration Orban told a Hungarian newspaper that Trump had invited him to the White House. “He invited me to Washington, I told him that I hadn’t been there for a long time as I had been treated as a ‘black sheep,’” Orban said. “To which [Trump] replied, laughing: ‘Me too.’” President Trump has ramped up senior-level engagement between Hungary and the United States.
In April, after Turkey voted in favor of a referendum granting President Recep Tayyip Erdogan authoritarian powers, Trump called Erdogan to congratulate him on what is, in effect, the end of any hope for a free Turkey. One week later, Trump invited the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House. Duterte, an anti-American paranoid, has encouraged a campaign of vigilante murder against suspected drug dealers that has resulted in untold thousands of deaths. The minimal strategic importance of the Philippines does not begin to justify the feting of such a figure at the White House. But indifference to illiberalism does.
There are, of course, times when the United States must seek common ground with illiberal leaders. Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi presents one such case. He ousted his Islamist predecessor Mohamed Morsi in a coup and has ruled Egypt with a heavy hand. His regime is corrupt and has committed documented human-rights violations. But Sisi is an outspoken critic of radical Islam and is pursuing peace and security cooperation with Israel. Trump was right to give him a proper White House reception in April. But such cases are the exceptions.
It must not be forgotten that Barack Obama also snubbed allies and embraced illiberal regimes. It matters little now that he did so out of progressive zeal instead of populism. Obama scrapped Bush-era plans for a U.S. missile defense shield for Poland and the Czech Republic in hopes of pursuing a “reset” with Putin. His administration worked unsuccessfully to prevent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from getting reelected, and it abstained, in the last days of Obama’s term, from a United Nations vote condemning Israeli settlements. This gave a victory to the oppressive Palestinian Authority. During the course of Obama’s two terms, several European leaders expressed sorrow at America’s new lack of interest in protecting political freedom abroad. And, finally, Obama obtained a flimsy “deal” with theocratic Iran, giving billions of dollars to the mullahs in Tehran in exchange for an unclear and unverifiable reduction of its nuclear program. These actions weakened the bonds of the free world before Trump ever ran for office.
Obama is no longer president. Donald Trump is—and he is hastening the end of the free world. If a collection of countries is to live up to that designation, they must choose to cooperate with one another in pursuit of the same aim: elevating liberty’s guarantors above its enemies. The United States is the strongest, most consequential free country in history. When it no longer feels obliged to safeguard political freedom, what hope can there be for the rest?
Democratic freedom is not self-perpetuating. Among modes of political organization, it is uniquely fragile, relying as it does on the consent of majorities. People may continue to vote for their own freedom. But if voting publics no longer consider democratic ties to be a priority, those ties will wither. American influence will wane. Strongmen will prey on the weak with no consequence. Donald Trump poses no threat to freedom in the United States, but if he continues to shirk the responsibilities that freedom bestows, our liberty will not be nearly so glorious as it was.