Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) comments at the security conference in Munich in recent days garnered the most attention in the US press. But the really significant comments and warnings came from Germany and France. The countries’ defense and foreign ministers respectively warned the US about trying to sow divisions in Europe or even break up the European Union. (It is worth remembering that strong words aside, McCain is still providing President Trump with strong legislative support and for all hist outspokenness was not even willing to utter President Trump’s name in his speeches, despite being the main target of his remarks. He’s got a good way to go.) As the storied and long-serving retired US diplomat Nicholas Burns put it in a tweet, America’s erstwhile European allies are now worried about America as a threat to the international order.
The comments from the European ministers should not surprise us. We’ve discussed this before. While it has received relatively little attention in the US press, the White House has been pursuing an open policy of destabilizing the European Union and using the United Kingdom’s exit from the EU to pry the EU apart with a series of bilateral trade agreements with the US. Whether this is feasible is another question; this is the intent. Why the White House – specifically President Trump and Steve Bannon – would want to do this is an important question. The fact that this aim lines up perfectly with Russian foreign policy goals speaks for itself. But it can equally plausibly be explained by the desire to destroy internationalist, liberal and largely cosmopolitan institutions to pave the way for a new global order based on competing blood and soil nationalisms. The US government is now in the hands of a faction or party the rise of which much of our statecraft has spent almost seventy years trying to prevent from coming to power in the states of Europe.
What is most striking about these warnings from the Europeans, however, is not simply the historical inversion. It is the fact that the Europeans are warning us, sounding the alarm about US attempts to destabilize and destroy the world order – particularly the North Atlantic order – that the US in fact created and which it has been the guarantor of for almost seventy years. The US is not only its creator but it is based on US concepts of government and norms and of course has the US at its center. If the record in what was once called the Third World is more mixed, the US has much to be proud of for the era of relative peace and historic prosperity since the 1940s in Europe and industrialized democracies of Asia. But it also goes without saying that the American-built and American-led world order has driven immense benefits which the US continues to enjoy.
The historic oddity of this situation points to a common dynamic Americans now face at home and abroad. Our partners in the international order we created – some of whom we conquered to make it possible – are now seeking to defend it from us. Let’s say that again, Defend it from us. How do we now as loyal Americans look at the warnings of the French and the Germans, as well as the British and our other erstwhile allies’ warnings? This is a complicated question which different people, depending on their professions and governmental responsibilities and personal dispositions, must answer in different ways. But we cannot ignore the fact that the American experiment is now in a kind of exile – taken refuge elsewhere – and the executive power of the American state now under a kind of, hopefully temporary, occupation.
We face a comparable dynamic at home. I have been thinking for weeks that the central challenge and reality of the Trump Era is what do you do as an institutionalist when the central institutions of the state have been taken over, albeit democratically, by what amount to pirates, people who want to destroy them? To put it another way, do the institutions and norms which Trump and his gang are trying to destroy become shackles and obstacles in the way of those trying to defend them? There’s no easy answers to these questions.
This is not the first time this question or this dynamic has been faced. For scholars who study the Nazi seizure of power in Germany, one of the central questions has always been the role of the Social Democrats. The Nazis came to power democratically and the proceeded to dismantle the state using its own power. The Social Democrats were the only political force in the country with a sufficient mass base, contrary ideology and organization to resist. And yet the extremely simplified version of the story is that they did not. The reason is that (again, this is a very simplified version of the story) they were too bought into republican government and constitutionalism to take the actions which would have been necessary in that moment of paradoxical and existential crisis.
We are all warned, rightly, to avoid comparisons to the Nazi Germany whenever possible. But in this case I do so first to note the comparable dynamic – how does one vindicate and defend liberal values and constitutionalism when the people holding the levers of state power are trying to destroy them but even more to point to the ways in which this historical analogy is not at all comparable.
We usually hear the story of the rise of Nazism as a cautionary tale of the way fascism can rise from within a democracy to destroy it. This is a highly misleading description of events. Weimar Germany was in essence a failed state which was born to a relatively brief but intense and brutal period of civil war and political violence, went immediately into a catastrophic, multi-year economic crisis and then briefly stabilized for no more than half a dozen years before lurching again into crisis with the onset of the Great Depression. Imperial Germany had a thin parliamentary tradition but its political culture was deeply illiberal and authoritarian. The democracy Hitler destroyed was at best embryonic and broken. One can easily argue that it scarcely existed.
I say all this because while the danger of the current moment is severe, American is nothing like Germany of the 1920s or 1930s. American democracy is in more danger now than at any time since at least the 1930s and arguably more than at any time in its history. But we have centuries of unbroken history of regular elections, vibrant democratic institutions and most importantly a deeply embedded, though not infrequently challenged, democratic political culture. I say this not in favor of complacency but to bolster confidence, which I think is sorely needed.
We should be confident in this history, tarnished and imperfect as it may be. But we do need to start answering these questions. How do we act within democratic norms to protect our institutions from the piratical individuals who have taken hold of them? McCain gave some hint of this when he pledged that the legislative and judicial branches of the American would be upholding constitutionalism while the executive was in this period of what I would term occupation. This is something of an empty boast as long as the legislative branch, which McCain’s party controls, has done little to nothing to rein in Trump’s rule. It also shows the nature of the challenge since the executive is the branch with executive power, the power to act, especially abroad. Because of that we face a comparable question in how we defend the America-led international order during this period of occupation or this interregnum when the American presidency is under the control of men who openly seek to destroy it.
I believe we will come out okay in the end. But these questions need attending to.