“The fundamental question of our time is whether the West has the will to survive.”
Those were the weighty words of President Trump when he spoke to an enthusiastic crowd in Poland. Though they sound more like the work of his speechwriters than of the tweeter-in-chief, they were both momentous and generally ignored by the media in the flood of news about the G-20 summit.
Trump did more than wring his hands about the future of the West. He outlined the three causes of concern about the fate of North America and Europe, facing threats from “the East” and “the South.”
It’s not surprising that the first threat came from “radical Islamic terrorism.” He warned about the confrontation with an “oppressive ideology – one that seeks to export terrorism and extremism all around the globe.”
This issue gave him the opportunity both to exhort the Arab leaders to whom he had spoken in Saudi Arabia “to drive out this menace” and to justify his policy of limiting immigration or expelling those who don’t “share our values and love our people.”
While he made a widely agreed point about terrorism, he ignored the conflict among the Arab countries that emerged right after the Saudi Arabia meeting in which the U.S. has taken sides, undermining the very leadership role he had recalled.
And his love-me-or-leave-me policy is a standard never employed by the government, because it’s impossible to apply.
His second threat to the West comes from powers that use “new forms of aggression,” including “cyberwarfare.” This concern might apply to China, but because Trump was speaking in Poland, it seemed obvious he was talking about Russia, that country’s neighbor.
In his next breath, he named Russia for its action in seizing territory in the Ukraine and its support for Syria and Iran. He invited Russia to join the West to “fight against common enemies and in defense of civilization itself,” implying that Russia was outside the West, but could change sides.
The President had difficulty sustaining this stern attitude toward the Russians. Denying the findings of all American security agencies, he wondered aloud if Russia had been the only country trying to undermine the 2016 election. He met Russian President Putin and left the impression he had accepted Putin’s denial of responsibility.
Compared to these major world challenges, his third threat to the West seems almost trivial and not nearly as serious. He warned against “the steady creep of government bureaucracy that drains the vitality and wealth of the people.” This threat to the West comes from “paperwork and regulations.”
Dealing with this challenge is “firmly within our control.” If government successfully declares war on rules, that will represent a major contribution to the survival of the West.
In this confrontation, Trump has been causing executive agencies to withdraw rules and to refrain from adopting new ones. There’s no need to amend laws you oppose, if the agencies tasked with carrying out those laws are prevented from adopting the necessary, detailed rules.
In effect, the West will be saved if laws are blocked from application by undercutting the power of government agencies to carry out the requirements of those laws. All that’s necessary is to run around the laws, ignoring the legislative process.
Trump’s concern echoes Alabama Gov. George Wallace in his 1968 run for the presidency as an avowed racist. A famous phrase attributed to him was his attack on “pointy headed bureaucrats” (though that’s not exactly what he said). Those bureaucrats were busy implementing the civil rights laws.
It seemed fitting that the president of the leading country of the free world, the U.S., should deliver the remarks he made in Poland. It sounded like a reassertion of American leadership.
But that broader purpose of setting the priorities for the West did not resonate. The words of warning were belied by the actions of the person speaking them.
At the G-20 gathering of the world’s major powers, Trump led the U.S. delegation away from consensus and toward isolation. On trade, the final statement was left at broad generalizations. On climate, there was a statement by 19 participants and a separate one by the U.S.
Trump’s slogan is “Make America Great Again.” That seems to mean that the U.S. has decided to go its own way, happily relinquishing world leadership to focus on narrow and short-term national issues. Can that help give the West “the will to survive?”
If not, Trump is laying the groundwork for the next president whose slogan could well be, “Make America Great Again.”