I’ve just returned from a trip to Italy, Britain and France, where I watched the struggle between far-right populist nationalists and those who believe in a united, democratic Europe. A democratic Europe allied with the United States.
That struggle was reflected in the contrasting tone of speeches given by President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron in Normandy on the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Both praised the heroism of those who stormed the beaches, including vets in their 90s who made it to the celebration.
But Trump never mentioned the postwar institutions the United States built to bind Western democracies together after World War II. That omission was clearly deliberate, given the president’s disdain for almost any multilateral organization.
Macron, on the other hand, with a whiff of desperation, urged Trump to embrace the Western alliance, including NATO and the European Union, as guarantors of the freedoms those veterans fought for. “Being worthy of the promise of Normandy,” said the French leader, “means never forgetting that free people, when they join forces, can surmount any challenge.”
Trump’s resistance to Macron’s message will cost Europeans dearly. And Americans, too.
Even as Trump spoke, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping were meeting in St. Petersburg, Russia, strengthening an alliance meant to push back U.S. influence and power.
Moscow and Beijing are active in space and masters of cyberwarfare, which Russia uses to prod democracies’ weak spots. In recent days, a Russian jet buzzed a U.S. military plane and a Russian and U.S. warship nearly collided.
Meantime, the White House is struggling to persuade Western allies not to purchase equipment from Chinese telecom giant Huawei for the next-generation 5G systems – for security reasons.
Clearly, this is a critical moment when the Western alliance should be pulling together against new threats – just as the World War II victors intended.
Instead, Trump is encouraging Europeans in a different direction. He speaks of an alliance of separate “nations” even as he derides NATO as a drain on America’s resources, rather than a U.S.-led organization sharing values of democracy, freedom, and rule of law.
Yet Macron was passionate in his plea for Trump to reengage in a multilateral struggle for democracy’s future. “Dear Donald Trump, America is never as great as when it fights for the freedom of others,” the French leader said, turning to the president. “The United States of America is never greater than when it shows its loyalty … to the universal values that the Founding Fathers defended.”
However, as Macron knows well, Trump shows no interest in perpetuating America’s postwar role as global champion of democratic values. The president is famously fond of autocrats and dictators – from Putin to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un – while nastily critical of democratic allies, such as Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel.
In Europe, Trump cheers on far-right populist nationalist leaders – including a recent White House visitor, Hungary’s Viktor Orban – who share the president’s impatience with press freedom and a free judiciary. Trump has also praised France’s Marine Le Pen, whose far-right party barely edged out Macron’s in recent European Parliament elections.
Both Le Pen and Orban are close to Putin; Le Pen even borrowed money from a Kremlin-linked Russian bank. Not exactly exemplars of “universal values” but acceptable to Trump.
And on his state visit to London last week, the president met with and praised Nigel Farage, leader of the Brexit Party that wants Britain to leave the EU with no trade deal, which will gravely weaken America’s closest European ally.
These European nationalist leaders, in turn, flatter Trump and see his success as encouraging their political trend.
Yet, as I saw on my trip, there is an even worse similarity between Trump and the European leaders he chooses to praise.
At a large Brexit Party rally in London’s Olympia hall, I watched Farage falsely promise his followers they could have a no-deal Brexit in October, and be economically stronger than ever.
Similarly, in Italy, Interior Minister Matteo Salvini called for a “Trump-style revolution” – pledging to lower taxes, while building infrastructure and creating jobs. This, despite Italy’s staggering debt, which ensures that Salvini’s fairy tale will never be fulfilled.
Although none of the nationalist populists has yet come to power in Western Europe (several did less well in the European Parliament elections than expected), the future of democratic Europe looks wobbly. When lying populists fail to deliver, things may get nastier.
Never, since the end of World War II, has American leadership been so vital to help our allies strengthen their economies and security. Instead we have Trump trade wars, NATO-bashing and praise for despots.
Listening to Trump’s speech, it was clear he never read Ronald Reagan’s remarks on the 40th anniversary of D-Day, whose principles Macron echoed.
“The American security guarantee is essential to the continued freedom of Europe’s democracies,” Reagan said. “We’ve learned that isolationism never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent.” Could not be better said.