BY MICHAEL GERSON
Setting aside the issue of whether the president is wittingly advancing the interests of a hostile power — a qualification that is only imaginable in the Trump era — what is happening to the direction of American foreign policy?
I’m on record saying that the collection of impulses, deceptions, assertions, retractions, revisions and compromises that constitute Trump’s foreign policy record are difficult to gather into a consistent doctrine. But we do know what doctrines Trump has set out to destroy.
GOP foreign policy over the last few decades is the outcome of two defining decisions. The first took place in 1952 when the Republican presidential frontrunner, Senator Robert Taft, expressed a lack of enthusiasm toward the NATO alliance. This alarmed NATO’s Supreme Commander, Dwight Eisenhower, enough to enter the race and beat Taft soundly.
Most rank-and-file Republicans in the early ‘50s probably shared Taft’s isolationist belief that the world could and should take care of itself. But Eisenhower — who had seen how the unconfronted disorders of Europe could spill out into world wars that took tens of millions of lives — found Taft’s attitude dangerous. Eisenhower — and all Republican presidents until Trump — was committed to Atlanticism and collective security. All believed that giving minor concessions to a hostile power only delayed an eventual reckoning and made it bloodier.
The second decision came in 1980, when Ronald Reagan’s election marked the end of Henry Kissinger’s reign of realpolitik. Both men were internationalists who understood that America was safer when it engaged the world, acted with allies and shaped the security environment. But while Kissinger tended to see the goal of foreign policy as the stable management of unavoidable rivalry, Reagan saw the objective as the eventual victory of a superior system — a system of economic and political freedom that delivered better lives and fulfilled the deepest human longings.
In practice, this meant fostering constructive instability on the margins of the Soviet empire — most successfully in Afghanistan — in order to intensify its weaknesses. Reagan was firm, but not foolhardy. He was willing to negotiate. But he believed that the American creed gave our country a tremendous, practical advantage. By standing on the side of freedom fighters, dissidents and exiles, Reagan was clarifying a moral choice — not just between two political systems, but between good and evil. And this, in his view, tilted the tables of history in favor of free nations.
This is the context in which Reagan viewed our trans-Atlantic relationship. In one respect, he saw it as an essential security arrangement. “I can hardly think of another aspect of U.S. foreign policy on which there is broader consensus than our commitment to defend our allies against attack,” he argued in a 1983 interview. “We know that our security and that of Europe are bound together.”
At the same time, this relationship had a deeper strength rooted in morality. “NATO is not just a military alliance,” Reagan said, “it’s a voluntary political community of free men and women based on shared principles and a common history. The ties that bind us to our European allies are not the brittle ties of expediency or the weighty shackles of compulsion. They resemble what Abraham Lincoln called the ‘mystic chords of memory’ uniting peoples who share a common vision.”
Reagan viewed that vision as a reason for confidence. “The source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual,” he declared. “And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man.”
So let us take an account of what is being smashed by Donald Trump. In viewing our European allies as a “foe” intent on exploitation, Trump is smashing an alliance that has encouraged peaceful relations within Europe and jointly resisted terrorism and Russian aggression. By questioning NATO’s Article 5 and the principle of collective security, he is smashing a system that has turned a continent prone to war and genocide into a flawed but functioning community of free nations. By ignoring and denying the moral power of American ideals and expressing a deeply un-American dictator envy, Trump is smashing our sense of national mission along with the hopes of oppressed people everywhere.
And for what? For a form of extreme nationalism that serves someone else’s nation? For a definition of strength that trades away the tremendous advantage of our defining ideals? This is a work of demolition without the inconvenience of new architecture. Yet among his Republican supporters, none dare call it idiocy.
Michael Gerson is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. He is cohosting a new, limited-run PBS interview program “In Principle” that runs Fridays at 7:30 p.m. CST. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.