There are days that change things. There was Tuesday, July 27, 2004 – the place was Boston – Barack Obama delivered the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention to all the partisans who wanted to toss out George Bush, who had already become a disaster. Far worse was to come, but so far, enough was enough. What the hell were we doing in Iraq? There never were any weapons of mass destruction and Saddam Hussein hadn’t been behind 9/11 or anything else. And what was with all the tax cuts for the rich? Ordinary people were in trouble. Economic conservatism was a scam. Preemptive wars weren’t going to transform the Middle East either – there would only be more wars – and social conservatism was cruel – racism in disguise. And the people in red states were idiots. It was time to go to war with them – perhaps for truth, justice and the American way. They hate us, we hate them, and that’s not going to change – not now – maybe not ever. The nation had been split in two, into two tribes as many said. There was no going back. Choose your side. Stand with your tribe.
National political conventions are like that – the next month the 2004 Republican National Convention at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan wasn’t much different – but in Boston, Barack Obama had something to say to both sides:
Well, I say to them tonight, there is not a liberal America and a conservative America – there is the United States of America. There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America – there’s the United States of America.
The pundits like to slice-and-dice our country into Red States and Blue States; Red States for Republicans, Blue States for Democrats. But I’ve got news for them, too: We worship an awesome God in the Blue States, and we don’t like federal agents poking around in our libraries in the Red States. We coach Little League in the Blue States, and, yes, we’ve got some gay friends in the Red States. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq.
Everyone knew that they were looking at the next President of the United States – assuming John Kerry lost, which he did, and assuming that George Bush would be even more of a disaster, which he certainly was. Hillary Clinton didn’t stand a chance. She was a tribal Democrat, or at least an establishment Democrat. Obama was post-tribal. John McCain didn’t stand a chance either. His tribe had blown it – and Obama was beyond all that. He would transform American politics. He was transformational.
Obama knew that. There was January 16, 2008:
Obama, in his interview with the Reno Gazette-Journal’s editorial board, made the case that his movement is as much about a national moment as about him as a “singular” individual, and he drew a rather odd analogy for a Democrat: Ronald Reagan.
“Ronald Reagan changed the trajectory of America in a way that Richard Nixon did not, and a way that Bill Clinton did not,” he said, describing Reagan as appealing to a sentiment that, “We want clarity, we want optimism, we want a return to that sense of dynamism and entrepreneurship that had been missing.”
Later, he also compared the moment, in passing, to the one that produced President Kennedy.
There are transformational presidents. “Hope” was back for both the rich and the poor too. People were tired of the fussing and fighting. That’s what was in the air, and there he was. Someone had to make this happen. He’d step up. He’d be as transformational as Ronald Reagan or President Kennedy – and maybe he wouldn’t get shot.
No one shot Obama, but things didn’t work out. As Obama’s second term ended, David Greenberg offered this:
Everywhere there are bouquets to his classy family, tributes to his avoidance of scandal, toasts to his decency, and appreciations of his dry wit. Even his reading habits are cause for celebration: “Not since Lincoln has there been a president as fundamentally shaped – in his life, convictions and outlook on the world – by reading and writing as Barack Obama,” wrote the book critic Michiko Kakutani in a front-page New York Times story…
If it’s not Obama’s dignified, cerebral style being venerated, it’s a laundry list of his hard-won achievements, many of them undeniably important: the Recovery Act, the auto bailout, Obamacare, Dodd-Frank, killing bin Laden, the Cuba opening, the Paris climate accord – you can fill in the rest. Impressive as this litany is, though, it hardly adds up to the best presidency since Franklin Roosevelt’s; you can make lists just as long for a lot of other presidents, too – nor does the record rise to the status of “transformational” – to use the word that has hovered over his two terms in office. Obama has undoubtedly been a very good president, and in some ways an excellent one, but he hasn’t fundamentally changed the country in the manner of FDR or LBJ or Ronald Reagan or even, arguably, Bill Clinton, who restored confidence in liberal governance so that crime, welfare, fiscal responsibility and national security were no longer millstones for democrats.
Obamacare did a lot of good, but it didn’t change the system. The government provided ways, and funds, for the excluded to buy health insurance from our for-profit insurance industry – and set standards that pissed off social conservatives. That only propped up an ongoing mess and Obama’s foreign policy dictum – basically don’t do stupid shit – was seen as weakness. That kept us out of endless trouble, but it was weakness. Leading from behind wasn’t leading. And of course our politics are more tribal than ever. Obama couldn’t do anything about that. In his second term he stopped trying. He wrote executive orders.
Donald Trump is the transformational president. His second try at a travel ban was shot down in the courts again. Once again the courts noted what he had been saying about Muslims all along, and in Brussels, Trump finally met with NATO – which Trump had said was obsolete, and then said wasn’t obsolete, but then had hedged on that. They weren’t sure which Donald Trump would show up. The original Donald Trump showed up and appalled them, and scolded them, and scared the crap out of them. They know they cannot depend on America now. His staff tried to clean that up – he didn’t mean that – but later in the day he declared that Germany was evil. They sold too many cars here. He’d stop that – and along the way, at a photo op, he shoved the guy new from Montenegro aside and struck a frowning Mussolini pose for the cameras. He was the big man – and then, late in the day, both the Washington Post and NBC reported that the FBI had his son-in-law “under scrutiny” – Jared may have been playing footsie with the Russians, or maybe he knew who was, or maybe “financial crimes” were the issue – getting even richer selling his influence. No one knew, but this was trouble. Oh, and along the way, the first instance of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russians was exposed – and that was just one day last week. He then headed to Sicily for the G7 meeting – where he hinted that the United States may pull out of that Paris climate accord. We’d put America First – this is about jobs here at home, about coal miners. Every other nation in the world can stay in that Paris climate accord, and will, but we won’t. America doesn’t give a shit. We take care of our own.
This is transformational. Imagine a new axis of power – the United States and Russia, with the Brits, now that they’ve pulled out if the European Union, as a junior partner. That would be the US-Russia-UK axis. Forget NATO – the Europeans can take care of their own issues from now on. They’re on the other side now, and if they care about climate change, they can team with India and China if they want. We don’t care. As for trade, Trump killed the Trans-Pacific Partnership. We will not set up a mutual free-trade system with the Pacific Rim nations. Let China do that if they want, and if every nation from Australia to Chili to Japan to Indonesia joins up, to set standards and lower trade barriers and get rich, let them. What do we care? The same goes of the European Union, another trade association, really. We’ll encourage other nations over there to do the Brexit thing – and then we’ll deal with those individual nations, and we won’t get screwed this time. Trump talks about pulling out of NAFTA too. Mexico and Canada have been screwing us over. They’re the enemy now – and Canada keeps taking in all those Syrian refuges. Trump could name Canada a “state sponsor of terrorism” and shut the border and pull our ambassador and all that. He won’t, but he could. Don’t tempt him. It’s the United States and Russia against the world.
That seems absurd, but maybe it isn’t:
Angela Merkel has suggested Germany and Europe can no longer rely on the US under Donald Trump.
Speaking at a campaign event held in a Bavarian beer tent, the German Chancellor emphasized the need for friendly relations with the US, Britain and Russia, but added: “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands.”
Ms Merkel said that as the traditional western alliance is threatened by the new US presidency and Brexit, “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over, as I have experienced in the past few days.”
While Germany and Europe would strive to maintain relations with the US and Britain, Ms Merkel said, “We need to know we must fight for our own future as Europeans for our destiny.”
Her comments came after Mr Trump said he needed more time to decide if the US would continue backing the Paris climate deal, which has frustrated European diplomats.
Everyone knows where this is headed:
Mr Trump has reportedly told “confidants” including the head of the Environmental Protection Agency Scott Pruitt, he wants the US to leave the international agreement on climate change, the Axios news outlet reported, citing three sources with direct knowledge.
A source who has been in contact with people involved in the decision told Reuters a couple of meetings were planned with chief executives of energy companies and big corporations and others about the climate agreement ahead of Mr Trump’s expected announcement later in the week.
Still, Trump didn’t get everything he wanted:
Despite the Trump administration’s talk of an “America first” policy and ongoing criticism of Germany for its massive trade surplus, the G7 summit in Sicily did vow to fight protectionism, reiterating “a commitment to keep our markets open”.
They also agreed to step up pressure on North Korea, to forge closer cooperation in the fight against terrorism, on the possibility of imposing more sanctions on Russia over its role in the conflict in Ukraine.
Except for that bit about North Korea, this must have pissed off Trump, but things are being transformed:
The new French president, Emmanuel Macron, has shown a willingness to work with Germany and to help lead the bloc out of its troubles. And Ms. Merkel sees Germany’s future more and more with the European Union of 27 nations, without Britain after its vote to leave the bloc.
“This seems to be the end of an era, one in which the United States led and Europe followed,” said Ivo H. Daalder, a former United States envoy to NATO who is now the director of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “Today, the United States is heading into a direction on key issues that seems diametrically opposite of where Europe is heading. Merkel’s comments are an acknowledgment of that new reality.”
Ms. Merkel’s emphasis on the need of Europe to stand up for its own interests comes after Mr. Trump declined to publicly endorse NATO’s doctrine of collective defense or to agree to common European positions on global trade, dealing with Russian aggression or mitigating the effects of climate change…
Mr. Daalder said: “This is ‘America first’ – a policy focused on narrow self-interest – and abandons the idea that the best way to enhance our security and prosperity is by having strong allies and leading globally in pursuit of common values and interests.”
We don’t care:
As they traveled back to the United States over the weekend, White House officials said Mr. Trump had succeeded in delivering a blunt message about self-reliance to American allies in Europe.
They said the president’s decision to scold the NATO member countries about their contributions to the defense alliance would reduce the need for the United States to carry the financial burden for the Continent’s defense. And they said the president’s tough position on trade would help protect American companies from unfair practices…
As for Mr. Trump, he says the trip was a resounding success. On Sunday, after being restrained on Twitter while abroad, he returned to form, unleashing a barrage of posts. Among them: “Just returned from Europe. Trip was a great success for America. Hard work but big results!”
Mr. Daalder disagreed. “The president’s failure to endorse Article 5 in a speech at NATO headquarters, his continued lambasting of Germany and other allies on trade, his apparent decision to walk away from the Paris climate agreement – all suggest that the United States is less interested in leading globally than has been the case for the last 70 years,” he said.
That’s transformational, and Henry Farrell, an associate professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University, considers what Merkel said:
This is an enormous change in political rhetoric. While the public is more familiar with the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States, the German-US relationship has arguably been more important. One of the key purposes of NATO was to embed Germany in an international framework that would prevent it from becoming a threat to European peace as it had been in World War I and World War II. In the words of NATO’s first secretary general, NATO was supposed “to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.” Now, Merkel is suggesting that the Americans aren’t really in, and, by extension, Germany and Europe are likely to take on a much more substantial and independent role than they have in the past 70 years.
She may lead an axis to counter the new US-Russia-UK axis:
The keystone of NATO is Article 5, which has typically been read as a commitment that in the event that one member of the alliance is attacked, all other members will come to its aid. When Trump visited NATO, he dedicated a plaque to the one time that Article 5 has been invoked – when all members of NATO promised to come to the United States’ support after the terrorist attack on Sept. 11, 2001. However, Trump did not express his commitment to Article 5 in his speech to NATO, instead lambasting other NATO members for not spending enough money on their militaries…
This cements the impression of the United States as an unreliable partner. Trump has ostentatiously refused to express his commitment to an agreement that has been the bulwark of Europe-U.S. security relations over the past three generations. He also has declined to say that the United States will work within the previously agreed framework on global warming. While many authoritarian states are cheered by Trump’s election and actions, since he is unlikely to press them on human rights and other sore points, traditional US allies are enormously disheartened.
They’ll form their own axis:
Merkel’s rhetoric is clearly intended to imply that as the transatlantic relationship grows weaker, the European Union will grow stronger. When she links Britain’s departure from the European Union with US unreliability, she suggests that now that Britain is leaving, it will be possible for the EU to concentrate on getting its own affairs in order, propelled by a stronger relationship between Germany and France. Britain always wanted to keep transatlantic security institutions, such as NATO, strong, which sometimes meant pushing back against giving the EU a new security role. Now that Britain is no longer going to be part of the EU it will no longer have veto power.
However, Merkel will face her own challenges in building a stronger Europe. Europe faces several internal disagreements. States such as Poland and Hungary agree more with Trump than with Germany on many issues. Southern European countries still resent Germany’s support of painful and (for them) damaging austerity policies. If Germany wants to cooperate with France on security, France is likely to look to Germany to make concessions on economic governance and spending. Although Merkel has recently hinted that such concessions might be possible, they will be controversial with other German politicians (including senior members of her party) and perhaps with the German public…
Still, it is important to note that Merkel’s temperament is the polar opposite of Trump’s. She is highly cautious. This speech is not an impulsive move. Instead, Merkel is starting to make the case for a different EU, one that is stronger, more self-reliant and disinclined to look to the United States for leadership.
Perhaps the EU – led by Germany and France – will now face off against the combined US-Russia hegemon, and Farrell adds this:
People have not seriously begun to think through the consequences of Trump’s election for global politics. In some parts of the world, it is creating great opportunities. States whose interests clash with the United States may have opportunities to win gains while the United States, the global hegemon, is distracted with its internal crises. In other parts of the world, allies are likely to recalibrate their behavior, and in particular their dependence on the United States. They will not want their security to rely entirely on a country that can elect a president as erratic as Trump is and hence will start to hedge their bets. If the current U.S. administration has decided that it no longer needs to rely on allies as much as in the past, those allies are deciding that they cannot rely on the United States anymore and are starting to forge their own arrangements, which will diminish the US ability to influence their actions and decisions.
So, leading from behind is weakness, and not leading at all is strength? That’s new.
David Frum, who came up with the “Axis of Evil” formula when he was a speechwriter for George W, Bush, adds this perspective:
Germany has deferred less and less to the United States – and walked more and more its own path. Germans cheered candidate Obama in 2008, but German-US relations if anything sank even lower under President Obama than under President Bush. Merkel ignored Obama’s pleas to reflate the German economy after the financial crisis of 2008 and the euro crisis of 2010. The Snowden revelations – including exaggerated claims that the United States had tapped Merkel’s ubiquitous personal cellphone – poisoned the mood even more deeply. In June 2014, Germany took the unprecedented step of expelling the senior U.S. intelligence officer in Berlin, even announcing the action over Twitter…
Whoever was elected president in 2016 would face quite a challenge renewing and rebuilding the German relationship. Trump has instead done further damage.
Since the war, German politics has been founded on two fundamental commitments: to liberalism at home; to Atlanticism abroad. Only a tiny minority question the first, but a much larger minority doubt the second. Like Americans, the Germans remember the Nazi past. Much more than Americans, the Germans remember that British and American bombers burned the cities of Germany to the ground. Germans have gained voice to speak about their own history – and to express their own emotional distance from partners they no longer need so much as they used to. “We will never be family,” a semi-inebriated German Air Force general once insisted to me at a NATO conference in Tallinn. “Americans, British, Canadians, Australians, New Zealanders: You are family. We will never be.” That feeling is reflected in strategic decisions like the German hesitation to join the “Five Eyes” intelligence-sharing agreement.
Donald Trump is giving permission to US-skeptic elements in Germany.
And one thing leads to another:
Polls show that German confidence in the United States, already lowered under Obama, has collapsed under Trump to a level barely better than Putin’s Russia. Facing elections in the fall – and reassured that she has gained a congenial partner in France’s President Macron – Merkel has served formal notice that she will lead the German wandering away from the American alliance. In a speech before 2,000 people on Sunday, she declared that Europe cannot at this time rely on the U.S. and the U.K. “The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the last few days,” she said. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Notice that she said “Europeans,” not Germans. Notice too that she did not rule out that Europe might rely on the US and UK in the future: The door is not closed. But the old order has passed.
In fact, the new French president is lining up with our enemy Canada:
In Italy, Macron struck up an instant rapport with the 45-year-old Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau, TV cameras capturing images of the two chatting and strolling to the summit venue together – in contrast to Trump, 70, who waited to get a lift in golf buggy.
“Justin has been inspiring,” Macron said afterwards. “We belong to a generation of leaders that will deeply renew practices and a vision of global affairs.” The French leader also clearly gets on well with Merkel, whom he has now met three times in the first two weeks of his five-year presidency.
Folks are choosing sides now. The United States and Russia (and the Brits) now stand alone – defiant – and Tuesday, July 27, 2004, was a long time ago. Barack Obama was going to be a transformational president. He failed. That’s probably a good thing. Transformational presidents are dangerous. This will not end well.