In half a week, between Quebec and Singapore, Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out.
When President Trump walked out early from the meeting of the Group of Seven in Charlevoix, Quebec, on June 9th, he left the group’s collective statement without an American signature. It was hardly a controversial document—the language was G-7 boilerplate, affirming “our shared values of freedom, democracy, the rule of law and respect for human rights and our commitment to promote a rules-based international order.” U.S. officials had negotiated a change in that last phrase from the definite article to an indefinite one—apparently, “the rules-based international order” threatened American sovereignty. But Trump still refused to sign. A spat with Canada over steel and aluminum tariffs had fouled his mood, and as he was leaving Canadian airspace the President insulted his host, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “dishonest” and “weak.” Air Force One flew on to Singapore, where Trump lavished time and enthusiasm on the North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un—“a very talented man” and a “funny guy” with a “great personality.”
Dean Acheson, President Truman’s Secretary of State, called his autobiography “Present at the Creation.” The title referred to the task that confronted American leaders at the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, which was “just a bit less formidable than that described in the first chapter of Genesis,” Acheson wrote. “That was to create a world out of chaos; ours, to create half a world, a free half, out of the same material without blowing the whole to pieces in the process.” A network of institutions and alliances—the United Nations, nato, the international monetary system, and others—became the foundation for “the rules-based international order” that the leaders in Charlevoix saluted. It imposed restraints on the power politics that had nearly destroyed the world. It was a liberal order, based on coöperation among countries and respect for individual rights, and it was created and upheld by the world’s leading liberal democracy. America’s goals weren’t selfless, and we often failed to live up to our stated principles. Power politics didn’t disappear from the planet, but the system endured, flawed and adaptable, for seventy years.
In four days, between Quebec and Singapore, Trump showed that the liberal order is hateful to him, and that he wants out. Its rules are too confining, its web of connections—from trade treaties to security alliances—unfair. And he seems to find his democratic counterparts distasteful, even pathetic. They speak in high-minded rhetoric rather than in Twitter insults, they’re emasculated by parliaments and by the press, and maybe they’re not very funny. Trump prefers the company of dictators who can flatter and be flattered. Part of his unhappiness in Quebec was due to the absence of President Vladimir Putin; before leaving for the summit, Trump had demanded that Russia be unconditionally restored to the G-7, from which it was suspended over the dismemberment of Ukraine. He finds nothing special about democratic values, and nothing objectionable about murderous rulers. “What, you think our country is so innocent?” he once asked.
Kim Jong Un is Trump’s kind of world leader. Instead of condemning Kim’s brutal consolidation of power, Trump admires and identifies with it, as if Kim were the underestimated scion of a family real-estate business who’s quickly learned the ropes. “When you take over a country—a tough country, with tough people—and you take it over from your father,” Trump told Fox News, “if you can do that at twenty-seven years old, I mean, that’s one in ten thousand that could do that. So he’s a very smart guy.”
Trump, with his instinct for exploiting resentments and exploding norms, has sensed that many Americans are ready to abandon global leadership. The disenchantment has been a long time coming. Barack Obama saw that the American century was ending and wanted to reduce U.S. commitments, but he tried to do so within the old web of connections. In pulling back, he provided Trump with a target. Now Trump is turning retrenchment into rout.
What would it mean for the United States to abandon the liberal order? There’s no other rules-based order to replace it with, which is why the definite article in the G-7 communiqué was appropriate. The alternative to an interconnected system of security partnerships and trade treaties is a return to the old system of unfettered power politics. In resurrecting the slogan “America First” from prewar isolationists who had no quarrel with Hitler, Trump was giving his view of modern history: everything went wrong when we turned outward.
Power politics favors regimes accustomed to operating outside the liberal order. Asked about Trump’s desire to see Russia restored to the G-7’s good graces, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov was dismissive—“We never asked to be allowed back”—as if Russia were happy not to have to answer to democratic scolds. After Quebec, the German Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, placed the United States among the rogue regimes: “Donald Trump’s egotistical politics of ‘America First,’ Russia’s attacks on international law and state sovereignty, the expansion of gigantic China: the world order we were used to, it no longer exists.” Europe is rapidly pulling away from the United States, but the European Union is weak and divided. The liberal order always depended on American leadership.
Trump imagines that America unbound, shaking hands or giving the finger, depending upon short-term interests and Presidential whims, will flourish among the other rogues. After his meeting with Kim, he flew home aglow with wonder at his own dealmaking prowess, assuring Americans that they could now sleep in peace. In fact, Trump had secured nothing except the same vague commitment to dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program which the regime has offered and routinely betrayed in the past. Meanwhile, he gave up something real—joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises, which he called “provocative,” the language of totalitarian and aggressive North Korea. Without allies and treaties, without universal values, American foreign policy largely depends on what goes on inside Trump’s head. Kim, like Putin, already seems to have got there.
Power politics is not a system that plays to American strengths. For all our lapses, we thrived for seventy years by standing for something. It wasn’t boilerplate at all, and we are present at the destruction. When the next global economic crisis or major war or terrorist attack happens, America will be alone.