Losing Our Grip, From Paris to Podgorica to London

Ralph Waldo Emerson gave us “the shot heard round the world”; Donald J. Trump, the shove felt cross the planet.

Most of the world does not feel sorry for America, and is not used to the wounded self-regard with which our President so frequently expresses himself. President Trump’s assertion that the Paris climate accord put America at “permanent disadvantage to the other countries of the world” has elicited no sympathy abroad. And the sight of our Commander-in-chief pushing another head of state out of his way at a recent NATO meeting in Brussels, a few days before the Paris pull-out, neither charmed nor inspired our allies.

I was in Bratislava at the time “the shove” was going viral. The conference I was attending was hosted by the Beacon Project (full disclosure: I’m on the steering committee), an initiative of the International Republican Institute, focusing on Russian propaganda and disinformation. The subject matter was somber enough, but with everything else that was going on, the participants, many from Central and Eastern Europe, were a bit glum. It was the Prime Minister of new NATO member Montenegro, after all, who had experienced that physical expression of “America First” in Brussels.

As for the fight against Russian subversion, one participant from Britain invoked the name William Joyce. Lessons from history are worth recounting.

Joyce was an infamous Nazi propagandist hanged by Britain for treason after the War. The Brooklyn-born Joyce was an Irish-American whose family returned to Ireland when William was still a boy. In 1932, Joyce joined the British Union of Fascists. In August 1939, together with his wife Margaret, he fled to Berlin where he was recruited by the Nazis for English-language radio broadcasts. As a mouthpiece for the Third Reich, Joyce was dubbed “Lord Haw-Haw of Zeesen” by Jonah Barrington of the Daily Express. But it was no joke: Lord Haw-Haw soon had an audience of 16 million Britons.

Many found him at first hilarious. In an affected English accent with a distinct nasal sound—said to have resulted from a boyhood fight in which Joyce’s nose was broken but not reset—Lord Haw-Haw’s nightly program was initially seen as harmless, or at least worthy of ridicule; his fare, far livelier than the staid BBC. Once Germany began to bomb Britain, the mood changed, but so did Joyce’s approach. He manipulated audiences with suggestions that he knew when the air raids were to occur. He styled himself a patriot, determined to save Britain from the Communists, Americans, and Jews.

Like Lord Haw-Haw, Kremlin media like RT know how to provoke and entertain. They, too, deceive and manipulate. Most important, though—and comparable to Joyce and his Nazi patrons—Russian disinformation efforts are also rooted in a vision. To be sure, Vladimir Putin is no Hitler, and he has no fixed ideology. But he does have a clear picture in mind. After more than a decade and a half of evidence it’s surely clear: Russia’s President wants the continent divided, the EU weakened, NATO emasculated, democracy demoralized, and America cut down to size. And he wants our help.

The Obama Administration did what it could by canceling missile defense and failing to arm Ukraine, for example. Now the clumsy and bullying way our latest President has carried himself, including squabbling out in the open with our closest allies, gives comfort to our adversary. But we face a deeper problem: we lack a positive vision of our own. Do we have a bigger picture or end game in mind for Europe and the transatlantic relationship going forward, beyond improving this or that bottom line?

In Bratislava, IRI released a poll exploring Central European vulnerabilities to Russian influence. Half or more of those surveyed in Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia, and 45 percent in the Czech Republic, think their country is on the wrong track. 36 percent in Slovakia, and 40 percent in the Czech Republic believe EU elites are pressuring them to abandon traditional values. A majority in all four countries favors neutrality over a firm commitment to NATO. A part of Europe that twenty years ago held the promise of bringing renewal to the alliance is slipping. Something is going wrong, and people feel it. This is what Vladimir Putin exploits, allowing him to play an otherwise weak hand strongly.

Indeed, across the West, democratic capitalism needs repair and renewal. Yet abandoning our fundamental liberal values cannot be an option. The West has forgotten how to articulate an inspiring vision for the future based on these values. Of course, not all have forgotten how to do the “vision thing”: France’s Emmanuel Macron stands poised to wield an overwhelming mandate after proclaiming that he stands for Western values and a European future. His challenge includes—if he is to take advantage of France’s populist pause—reforming a sclerotic French economy, overhauling the labor market and scaling back regulations, in the face of what is certain to be formidable opposition from forces on the Left and the Right.

If we care about American leadership, we Americans would do well to focus on something far more modest. We can remember that language, symbols, words, gestures—and how we treat our allies—matter greatly. The President’s ill-informed, ill-timed tweets about London’s Mayor after the recent terrorist attacks were but the latest example of how not to behave as leader of the free world. Ditto on the Paris accord. If you insist on leaving the climate agreement, show allies respect—not the middle finger—and a sense of common purpose moving ahead.

If “America First” is understood as “Allies Last” and shoving the rest of the planet aside, good luck getting all those deals done in the name of the American people. (The EU is, after all, the biggest U.S. trading partner.) Nor will a meaningful war against terror be any easier. Count instead on a period of “anti-hegemonic balancing” as allies and adversaries start tactically aligning on this and that to contain what they see as a bumbling, hubristic, self-dealing superpower.

If we still aspire to be an exemplar of democracy we might fine tune our language and adjust our behavior at home a bit, too. Politicians body-slamming reporters and threatening one another with firearms, as happened recently in Montana and Texas, respectively, suggests something is wrong. People feel it, and not just here.

Imagine a society where “partisan considerations…take precedence over pragmatic attempts to arrive at reasonable solutions [and] analysis is pushed out…by scandalmongering”; where “politicians are caught up…in the swirl of bad politics, and find themselves unable to extricate themselves because they are afraid of the risks this would entail”; where an “extravagant hunger for power [and a] lack of civility” lead to “mutual accusations, denunciations, and slander.”

That’s what Czech dissident and playwright-turned-statesman Vaclav Havel worried about a quarter of a century ago. His concern: societies left “morally unhinged” after decades of communism.

It’s unclear what our excuse is today, but it’s high time we get back to basics—for our good, and yes, for the good of the world.