A little more than a week ago, as President Trump completed his world mini-tour, my Ukrainian researcher emailed me. She witnessed some of the violence of Ukraine’s latest revolution and tends to be clear-eyed about the state of the things. Watching Trump’s behavior at the G7, and then with Kim Jong Un, she couldn’t shake that something profound had occurred.
“Every time I hear fireworks at night,” she wrote from Odessa, “my first thought is that it is not fireworks, so I wait to make sure. Low, loud planes make me wonder each time, too. Yet, Trump's words [at] the G7, and after — as well as the following silence — are the most terrifying thing I've ever seen, heard or sensed.”
Her fear is felt by many of our allies. Across Europe and Canada, I’m asked : “Where are the Americans?” The silence from so many of our leaders, from us all, is seen as acquiescence to the president’s radical reordering of the alliances the world has relied on for seven decades of security and prosperity, and the abandonment of the values that underpinned those alliances. The Europeans I know simply do not understand how Americans can watch that legacy slip away without a fight.
Our allies are unnerved. In the midst of starting trade wars (and personality wars) with Canada and Europe, Trump stormed out of the G7 in Charlevoix, removing his signature from the joint communique. His bullying was captured in a now-famous photo of the American president sitting petulant and isolated, surrounded by irritated peers, with German Chancellor Angela Merkel leaning in.
In Singapore, Trump issued fatuous praise for North Korean tyrant Kim, who — with the complicity of Russia and China — has starved his people in order to build nuclear weapons to threaten the United States. The president’s pledge to end military exercises on the Korean Peninsula delivered to North Korea, Russia and China a prize they have wanted for decades, for which the United States got nothing in return. Our Asian allies were left as shaken as our European ones.
Despite the president’s rhetoric, our allies cut us a lot of slack. They want to believe Trump’s worst instincts can’t challenge the deep institutional ties that bind us together. But stateside developments make this more difficult.
In Europe in particular the images of child migrant detention camps read as a data point in a pattern of troubling behavior. Trump spurred a rally of his supporters to scream about migrants being “animals,” and he talks about them “infesting” the country. When former CIA Director Gen. Michael Hayden warned of Nazi echoes in Trump’s “zero tolerance policy”, many Americans objected to the comparison. In Germany, however, and in nations that were captive to the U.S.S.R., people nodded. They remember the 1930s, and what it was like to wake up in a country that had slowly gone mad. And they hear that “following silence” from America.
Our allies know that American decline will not occur in isolation. Indeed, Trump’s loyalists work to spread the corrosion. Europe faces the rise of its own anti-immigrant, nativist political movements — many of which are advised by former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. The president’s new ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, told Breitbart that his goal was to “empower” these far-right, anti-EU parties — a wild statement from a diplomat, for which no one apologized. Just days ago, Trump lashed out at Merkel via Twitter, projecting his own narrative of lies about migrant crime onto Germany, “implicitly cheering,” wrote one reporter, for an end to her government.
Former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt responded: “Is Putin interfering, [trying to destabilize] the politics of the EU? Yes. But Trump is at the moment far worse. This is unheard of.”
The United States, perhaps as a byproduct of geography and history, has tended toward isolationism. We were late, reluctant entrants in World War I and World War II — a sentiment the president taps in his base. But after 1945, having paid so dearly for the victory , we stayed, and built, and helped forge a continent into a counterpart — the other pole of an alliance that remade the world.
Americans may not understand what’s at stake. If we lose our post-World War II allies, we lose the foundation that has made us a superpower. Our allies — and enemies — get it. Trump’s performances at the G7 and in Singapore — and everywhere since — have caused lasting damage to the United States for, at best, short-term gain. As the president prepares for summits with NATO and Russian President Vladimir Putin next month, NATO couldn’t be more nervous — and Putin happier — about the state of affairs.
Putin, as a leader, has been defined by silence. Stationed in Dresden as a KGB officer during the collapse of the USSR, he called for backup to defend his post against growing demonstrations. "We cannot do anything without orders from Moscow," came the response, "and Moscow is silent.” Such silence was the hallmark of the Soviet collapse — and it was inexcusable to Putin. He has worked to ensure there is never again silence from the center, even as his power requires the silence of his people when they question his methods.
Putin was born of a brittle system and believes “the people” are nonsense. This core cynicism is what he projects to undermine Western ideals. But the American people are resilient, and we have never been a nation defined by silence. Our values are enduring, and have outlasted fraught presidencies before. And now our voices are needed to overtake the silence, reassure our allies and defend what is ours.