President Trump’s Poland speech articulating his foreign policy principles has generated much comment and would have generated more but for all the Russia scandal news. It’s an important window into the President’s gestalt as he views the world. As I wrote recently, I don’t care for the “West against the Rest” as a paradigm US foreign policy because it risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, a point Martin Wolf makes powerfully in his column today.
Certainly, there is an argument for the President’s invocation of Western Civilization. Unlike many of my friends and colleagues in American universities, I sympathize with the concern that contemporary educational norms pass too lightly over the accomplishments of America and the West in favor of a fashionable multiculturalism. Indeed I have joked after reading multiple issues of its flagship journal that the American Studies Association should be renamed the anti-American Studies Association since it sees America largely through its sins towards minority groups.
The President though has a staggering hypocrisy problem in rooting his foreign policy in the Western values and the survival of the West.
First, if the West is a coherent entity under siege one would think that maintaining its unity was a paramount value. Yet the President has consciously driven the largest wedges in generations between the United States and its continental European allies.
Second, if the West stands for anything it is values of freedom, democracy and human rights. American Presidents differ in the emphasis they put on promotion of these values vs. supporting states whose security interests align with ours. From Russia, to Turkey to Saudi Arabia, to the decision to stand proudly with the current Polish government, President Trump has shown more fondness for autocrats and less regard for human rights than any President since the beginning of the 20th century.
Third, much of what has defined the West has been the values of the Enlightenment. Important among those values has been the idea there are truths that are rooted in and can be ascertained through empirical observation. President Trump has instead taken the view that truth is a social construction of the powerful. Whether it was crowd sizes at his inauguration, scientific nonsense on vaccines or climate change, or brazen lies about his past actions, the President has rejected the idea of empirically verifiable truth. This too is the opposite of upholding Western values.
If there is any silver lining in the President’s approach it is this: Perhaps the President’s determined invocation of the West as a common entity can serve as a spur to European leaders, especially in France and Germany, to rise above local European preoccupations and suggest ways forward on global issues. Far better that they fill the gap President Trump is leaving than that it be filled with by aspiring autocrats.