World affairs may seem safely distant from life in a corner of the country, but events last week will affect this country for years to come.
The most powerful democracies met twice, once at a NATO summit and then at the Group of 7 leading economic powers. Among countries that count the most, only Russia and China were absent, because the two organizations consider them as adversaries.
The key event came after those meetings, when German Chancellor Angela Merkel spoke with her supporters back home. Her speech recognized a page had turned in world history.
It was a European declaration of independence. “The times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over,” she said.
“I experienced that in the last few days, and therefore I can only say we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States and in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever it is possible, also with Russia and also with all the other countries,” she said.
“But we need to know that we have to fight for our own future and destiny as Europeans.”
Her statement reflected two major developments. The first was Brexit, the British vote to quit the European Union. The second was the rude, arrogant and ignorant behavior of President Trump last week on matters ranging from mutual defense to the environment to trade.
It also reflected a new European reality. Merkel showed strong leadership and even the opposing candidate in this fall’s German elections endorsed her position. And Emmanuel Macron, the new French president, revived hope for a recovery of leadership by his own country.
Trump had scolded sovereign nations, and literally elbowed aside the leader of another NATO member to get into his place in the front row. That’s not how one country deals with another. One result was that Macron crunched Trump’s handshake to make a political point.
If you want to receive respect, you have to give it.
Trump seems to believe that Europe and much of the rest of the world depends on the U.S., allowing him to impose his policies. Yet his “America First” approach essentially reduces this country’s influence. Other countries are beginning to realize their own abilities to operate free of U.S. leadership.
That’s a fact, so we should avoid getting defensive about it. It may be tempting to attack Merkel, because of German history six decades ago, but that hardly changes or improves a situation over which the U.S. has diminishing control.
In just four months as president, Trump has managed to bring about the kind of fundamental change he promised. The world after the Second World War, which the U.S. dominated, ended last week, and a new role for the U.S. began.
The U.S. has quit the Trans-Pacific Partnership, aimed at limiting China’s power, but the other participants proceed with it. Canada, snubbed and chided by the American president, will have a major, new trade agreement with the EU. Italy is reportedly increasing contacts with the Russians.
The American trade deficit is treated in isolation from the foreign investment flowing into the country. “Protectionism,” which had become a dirty word, is now being polished. But it is the equivalent of “isolation,” in which the U.S. may find itself adrift in the world economy.
Why should the average American care about this? Isn’t it better to put America first and stop worrying about the rest of the world?
That policy has consequences. Increasing economic isolation, behind a wall of higher trade barriers, will raise prices on most things we buy. In confronting Russia and China, the U.S. may find other countries pursing policies diverging from America’s interests.
Cooperating with allies may have seemed to be a drain on the American taxpayer, but it produced support from countries as far apart as Germany and Australia. Now, they are alienated, reducing our options and our ability to operate across the world.
Perhaps the new style of the American president is causing a needed international realignment of power. The result is already emerging – a world in which America’s dominant role is ending.
Americans believe their country is exceptional, and we are right. It has defeated threats to world peace for more than a century. At the same time, it has stood for values that others hope to achieve.
American exceptionalism depends on our respect for freedom and a system of justice under law. Leadership is not only a result of force, but of moral values. It is threatened.