David Andelman wrote A Shattered Peace: Versailles 1919 and the Price We Pay Today – the classic book about what not to do when you win. Don’t sneer. Don’t gloat. And don’t rub the loser’s nose in his (or her) own bitter defeat. That was what happened in 1919. At the end of the War to End All Wars the allies made sure Germany was humiliated, and made sure that they would remember, forever, that they had been humiliated. That’s what the Treaty of Versailles established. Germany now could have no army, or navy, or air force, or even much of an economy, ever again. And in the thirties, the Weimar Republic faced total disaster as our Great Depression reached Europe. Inflation reached something like one thousand percent. No one could buy anything – and Hitler smiled. When he took power in the thirties he systematically did what that treaty said he could not do. He built an army and navy and air force, and the Autobahn too – full employment at good wages for everyone. All it took was massive deficit spending.
He could ride that nation’s bitter resentment to power. In fact, he could rule the world. And he almost pulled it off. So, don’t gloat. Don’t sneer. Don’t humiliate the “pathetic loser” you just created. That’ll backfire. Donald Trump, are you listening?
He’s not. No one seems to be sure just what Donald Trump is doing. Consider that a power vacuum. Someone is going to fill that vacuum. Andelman sees who that is:
France’s 42-year-old president, Emmanuel Macron, who has faced many challenges governing his country, is now positioning himself to take over the mantle of global leadership long reserved to the older leaders of China, Russia or especially the United States. And right now, he has no real challengers.
What, that strange little man? Yes, him, because he’ll do what bold American presidents used to do, or at least try. If no one else will do it, Macron will do this:
The vehicle of this leadership campaign is Macron’s proposal for a worldwide ceasefire – a truce everywhere from Afghanistan to Syria, Iraq and Yemen. And he says he’s a good part of the way there. There are five permanent members of the UN Security Council (France, China, Russia, Britain and the US) and four of the five are on board, according to Macron.
Macron also says he hopes to secure the agreement of the final member, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, within hours. UN Secretary General António Guterres had already called for an “immediate, global ceasefire,” observing that “the fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” though with no real buy-in until Macron weighed in.
If the current American president won’t lead the world, he will, even if it might fail:
Even with the backing of the entire Security Council, there’s no assurance Afghanistan’s Taliban or their supporters in Pakistan will turn down the heat there. Russia and Turkey are maintaining their presence in Syria, whose dictator Bashar al-Assad will be ill-inclined to give any breathing room to the insurgents who continue their increasingly beleaguered efforts to unseat him.
Iranian-backed militias will continue their operations in Iraq, despite Iran’s desperate condition in the face of the pandemic. Chinese warships will continue to patrol the South China Sea to cement its hold over the long-disputed islands in this strategic waterway.
But it’s a start, something no one else would step up and try, so Macron will press on:
Macron indicated his intention to raise it with the G20 during a worldwide conference call of the group’s finance ministers Wednesday evening. The concept was broached in his interview on Radio France International when Macron also debuted the idea of a moratorium on all debt payments by African nations as a means of helping to control what promises to be potentially the most devastating continent-wide target of the coronavirus because of the lack of resources.
Repair the world. Sometimes that fails – Woodrow Wilson’s League of Nations – and sometimes you repair the world – Truman’s Marshall Plan – but now:
Where would such Macron initiatives leave the United States? Clearly with a more diminished presence on the world stage than ever at a time when only the greatest, most intense universal action can prevent global catastrophe.
A global backlash has already greeted Trump’s ill-timed and even more ill-conceived pledge to turn off all subsidies to the World Health Organization at the very height of the most profound challenge to global health in a century.
Yes, it seems that not everyone thinks that Donald Trump is awesome:
President Donald Trump’s decision on Tuesday to defund the World Health Organization during the global coronavirus pandemic is a “crime against humanity” and “another example of ‘America First and to hell with the world as a whole,'” according to various world leaders and leading medical experts…
Richard Horton, the editor-in-chief of the 200-year old highly-respected medical journal The Lancet called Trump’s move a “crime against humanity,” as Courthouse News reports.
Bill Gates, the Microsoft founder who co-founded the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, a global healthcare and anti-poverty organization, blasted the decision, calling it “as dangerous as it sounds.”
Josep Borrell Fontelles, the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, denounced Trump’s decision, saying there is “no reason justifying this move at a moment when their efforts are needed more than ever.”
And then there’s the ultra-pro-business crowd here at home:
Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce blasted President Trump for a decision “not in U.S. interests.”
“The Chamber supports a reformed but functional World Health Organization, and U.S. leadership and involvement are essential to ensuring its transparency and accountability going forward,” Myron Brilliant, executive vice president and head of international affairs Myron Brilliant said in a statement, The Hill reported. “However, cutting the WHO’s funding during the COVID-19 pandemic is not in U.S. interests given the organization’s critical role assisting other countries — particularly in the developing world -— in their response.”
And there are the medical folks:
The President of the American Medical Association, Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, called it “a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world.”
“During the worst public health crisis in a century, halting funding to the World Health Organization (WHO) is a dangerous step in the wrong direction that will not make defeating COVID-19 easier,” Dr. Harris said in a statement. “Fighting a global pandemic requires international cooperation and reliance on science and data. Cutting funding to the WHO – rather than focusing on solutions – is a dangerous move at a precarious moment for the world. The AMA is deeply concerned by this decision and its wide-ranging ramifications, and we strongly urge the President to reconsider.”
Noted UK biologist Richard Dawkins called it “another example of ‘America First and to hell with the world as a whole.'”
This made things easy for Macron. Trump can’t think two steps ahead, or even one step. Trump can’t play this game. Andelman sees Macron playing all the angles:
Macron has already taken a tough stand against some of the world’s leading powers and their actions during the pandemic. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian summoned to the Quai d’Orsay, the Chinese ambassador to France, who received a tongue-lashing for criticizing Western response to the coronavirus, even accusing French nursing home workers of “abandoning their posts overnight and leaving their residents to die of hunger and disease.”
China’s foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian quickly backed down, repudiating his ambassador’s remarks. Not long afterward, Macron added Xi Jinping’s name to his list of backers of his global truce.
Macron got what he wanted, and then he neutered Xi:
At the same time, a number of European countries have complained about China selling them faulty medical gear and test kits. None of this calculated to cement Xi as a leader to whom the world can turn in its time of need.
All this comes as China, particularly, has sought to raise its profile and assume a larger role on the world stage, filling a vacuum it perceives with the increasingly erratic performance of Donald Trump and his increasingly go-it-alone positions.
Macron keeps that talk alive. The United States left the stage long ago, but no can trust China to do the right thing either. There’s just Macron, doing what needs to be done:
A number of European countries have begun their first tentative moves toward a lifting the quarantine regulations. Macron himself has suggested May 11 for France. France could be a leader in this initiative.
A number of European countries also began closing borders – long open for decades under the frontier-free European Union – to their neighbors, hoping to contain the pandemic’s spread. Macron has been in the forefront of those anxious for the EU to maintain its integrity, its open borders and democratic systems in the wake of Britain’s exit from the continent.
Someone’s got to do these things. Trump is absent. Xi is useless. Macron is available.
Slate’s Fred Kaplan sees all this through another lens:
In 1994, on his 90th birthday, the legendary diplomat George Kennan, architect of America’s Cold War containment policy, said, in a speech looking back on his life and times, “It is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts its most useful influence beyond its borders.”
With our response to the coronavirus, so different from any crisis the country has faced for over a century, we are providing a very poor example, and as a result, our influence abroad is declining to a historic low point – so low that we may be experiencing a pivot in geopolitical power away from the United States and its allies.
Kaplan sees the rise of Xi, not Macron, but mostly this is the story of what Donald Trump has thrown away:
American influence had already been waning for a host of reasons – the collapse of power blocs (which gave us leverage in the Cold War competition), the rise of terrorist groups and sectarian militias (which can’t be quelled by conventional military means), the surge of Chinese investment and pressure in Asia and beyond. All of these trends have been accelerated, sometimes willfully, by President Donald Trump, who has dissed or deserted traditional allies, embraced authoritarian regimes, and wavered in his response to China’s rise from obsequious kowtowing to self-destructive trade wars.
Everyone knows the new rules now. Mexico and Canada have been taking advantage of us for decades. They must be humiliated – they deserve it – and the same goes for the NATO nations and all of Europe in general, and South Korea and Japan too. They all have been laughing at us behind our back. That’s humiliating. So now we will humiliate them! But at least there’s Putin and Kim in North Korea and Erdoğan in Turkey. Those three treat us right. Respect them.
That’s the power vacuum:
Until recently, Trump’s retreat from the ways of previous presidents only highlighted America’s esteem and power. His behavior alarmed so many allies because they desperately wanted the return of U.S. leadership – and delighted so many adversaries because they could carve new inroads of influence in the absence of this leadership.
Now, however, Trump has taken us to the brink of irrelevance – not quite to the abyss, but teetering on its edge.
And teetering is the right word:
To lead or to inspire, a country has to offer a model – an “example,” as Kennan put it, of what its leadership or values or system of politics can produce. And facing the coronavirus, we are showing that, at least for the moment, we’re offering little or nothing.
The New York Times and Washington Post have reported long, gripping tales of how slowly Trump responded to the pandemic, ignoring warnings from scientists and top officials. Even now, fully seized of the urgency, he has no plan for minimizing the damage or restarting the economy. He has appointed two advisory teams – and is about to appoint a third – thus only exacerbating personal and bureaucratic rivalries.
He continues to shrug off his responsibilities as chief executive, leaving under-resourced state governors to squabble among themselves in bidding wars for scarce medical supplies. His lousy relations with foreign governments have impeded the international cooperation that usually fosters a solution to these crises (though scientists are building consortiums on their own). He even tried to buy a German research company that was working on a vaccine, with an eye toward restricting its product to American buyers – a much-publicized attempt that could backfire if Germany or some other country comes up with a vaccine first.
But wait, there’s more:
Trump’s toxicity has infected our entire political system. The bureaucracy has been stripped of its experts; the few who remain often go ignored. The Cabinet, which once held a few independent minds, is now filled with mediocrities who see that their main job is to nod vigorously whenever the president speaks. Congress had one bright moment, when, with no help from Trump, it put together a $2 trillion rescue package and passed it almost unanimously; but the rudderless, threadbare bureaucracy has been slow to implement it.
That’s the vacuum, but that Frenchman isn’t filling it:
China is acting like a leader. This status may be undeserved; the virus took hold within its borders, and the Communist Party leaders suppressed the earliest reports of its spread and have falsified data ever since. Still, China is the source of much of the world’s medicine and medical gear, and party leaders have made a great show of airlifting supplies to other countries, including the United States. As Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, tweeted, “Let’s be honest. It hurts to see China sending humanitarian aid to the U.S. and Europe.”
That makes China the winner here:
Much of the Chinese medical gear turns out to be defective. But the image is still powerful: At least, in the eyes of many, China is doing something. What, they ask, is America doing for the rest of the world’s suffering? What, for that matter, is it doing for the suffering of its own people?
No one seems to know, but the New York Times reports that he is doing this:
On a Saturday in early March, Donald J. Trump, clad in a baseball cap, strode into the Situation Room for a meeting with the coronavirus task force. He didn’t stop by the group’s daily meetings often, but he had an idea he was eager to share: He wanted to start a White House talk radio show.
At the time, the virus was rapidly spreading across the country, and Mr. Trump would soon announce a ban on European travel. A talk radio show, Mr. Trump excitedly explained, would allow him to quell Americans’ fears and answer their questions about the pandemic directly, according to three White House officials who heard the pitch. There would be no screening, he said, just an open line for people to call and engage one-on-one with the president.
But that Saturday, almost as suddenly as he proposed it, the president outlined one reason he would not be moving forward with it: He did not want to compete with Rush Limbaugh.
He surprised the coronavirus task force: Stop what you’re doing! I have an idea! I could do a daily two hour talk radio call-in show! That would be so cool! But wait. There’s Rush. Damn!
What? All they could do was humor him:
No one in the room was sure how to respond, two of the officials said. Someone suggested hosting the show in the mornings or on weekends, to steer clear of the conservative radio host’s schedule. But Mr. Trump shook his head, saying he envisioned his show as two hours a day, every day. And were it not for Mr. Limbaugh, and the risk of encroaching on his territory, he reiterated, he would do it.
And then he wandered off and the coronavirus task force went back to work, but he did get his way:
The White House declined to comment on Mr. Trump’s desire for a radio show. The president ultimately opted for daily televised press briefings instead, which have in effect served as a stand-in for campaign rallies and regularly span two hours.
That makes him happy, but there’s still a vacuum at the top:
Some business leaders had no idea they were included until they heard that their names had been read in the Rose Garden on Tuesday night by President Trump. Some of those who had agreed to help said they received little information on what, exactly, they were signing up for. And others who were willing to connect with the White House could not participate in hastily organized conference calls on Wednesday because of scheduling conflicts and technical difficulties.
In short, the rollout of what the president referred to last week as his “Opening Our Country Council” was as confusing as the process of getting there. Instead of a formal council, what Mr. Trump announced on Tuesday was a watered-down version that included 17 separate industry groups, including hospitality, banking, energy and “thought leaders.” And on Wednesday, a bipartisan group of lawmakers received emails inviting them to join another task force.
The president participated in four calls with those groups during the day at the same time White House officials were playing down their significance, claiming that the creation of a “task force” was never planned, despite the president’s mention of it last week.
Again, all they could do was humor him:
Cisco Systems, the networking company, and McDonald’s were among the major employers that learned of their involvement in consulting with the president only when he mentioned their names on Tuesday evening, according to people familiar with the matter.
Pfizer was also blindsided by its inclusion in the group, receiving a heads-up that Mr. Trump might mention the company an hour before the announcement, with no information about how many other companies were involved or what the purpose of the group was.
Richard Trumka, the president of the AFL-CIO, was also not asked whether he would join the group before his name was announced by Mr. Trump as a participant, according to Carolyn Bobb, the union’s national media manager. But she said Mr. Trumka had planned to join a call with Mr. Trump on Wednesday “to see if it’s a serious effort.”
It wasn’t, because the nation’s top business leaders told him Trump was a damned fool:
In the first call of the day, Mr. Trump talked Wednesday morning with many of the big-name business leaders he had mentioned the night before, but encountered some resistance to his enthusiasm for reopening the country quickly, even as the executives offered some praise for his administration’s response.
Mr. Trump opened the call by saying that “testing is under control” in the country. But after each executive was given a minute or two to provide his or her overview of what was needed to reopen the economy, there was a wide consensus that more testing was needed before the economy could reopen, according to two people who participated on the call. Among those who made the point that the testing was necessary to track who was infected and who might have immunity before returning employees to work sites was Jeffrey P. Bezos, the chief executive of Amazon.
That’s the man who owns the Washington Post too – the enemy – but even the friendly business folks said the same thing, and more:
Another issue of great concern to the executives on the call, one participant said, was the need to address the liability companies could face if employees got sick after returning to work, given the possibility that workers who felt that they were brought back too soon – or were not placed in a safe environment – could sue en masse.
Had he thought of that? Had he thought through any of this? Who’s the captain of this ship?
That was the news of the day. Sometimes it is best to fill the vacuum:
The Navy is looking into whether it can reinstate Capt. Brett E. Crozier, who was removed from command of the carrier Theodore Roosevelt after he pleaded for more help fighting a novel coronavirus outbreak aboard his ship, Defense Department officials said on Wednesday.
Adm. Michael M. Gilday, the chief of naval operations, has indicated that he may reinstate Captain Crozier, who is viewed as a hero by his crew for putting their lives above his career, officials said.
There are natural leaders, so let them lead, if they can:
Admiral Gilday’s decision could be upended by President Trump, who has not been shy about intervening in military personnel cases. Only five months ago, Mr. Trump fired Navy Secretary Richard V. Spencer for opposing the president’s intervention in support of a member of the Navy SEALs accused of murdering a wounded captive with a hunting knife during a deployment to Iraq in 2017.
No one in the Navy wants those events to be repeated, which included a Twitter admonishment by Mr. Trump of how the branch’s leaders handled the SEALs case.
Yes, Trump could mess this up too, but at least someone knows how to fill a leadership vacuum:
As of Wednesday, 615 Roosevelt crew members have tested positive for the coronavirus; five are in the hospital with one in intensive care, and one has died. The death of the sailor on Monday was a poignant punctuation to Captain Crozier’s plea for help on March 30, after four days in which his superiors rebuffed his request to evacuate the ship. In an emailed letter, he wrote, “Sailors don’t need to die.”
Crozier knows how to lead. So does Macron. And nature abhors a vacuum. Maybe now voters will too.