Seven Days in May: NATO and Paris

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June 13, 2017

I recently re-watched John Frankenheimer’s 1964 film, Seven Days in May, about an attempted coup d’etat in the United States, a fictional close-call that was engineered by a General (Burt Lancaster) who fashioned himself as the savior of the country. The political contexts were somewhat different, but the underlying message, about the vulnerability of constitutional government, is relevant to this moment. The fictional president (played by Frederick March) a true democrat committed to the principles of the Republic, has this to say about the situation, the crisis in which he finds himself:

The enemy’s an age…It happens to have killed man’s faith in his ability to influence what happens to him. And out of this comes a sickness, and out of sickness a frustration, a feeling of impotence, helplessness, weakness. And from this, this desperation, we look for a champion in red, white, and blue. Every now and then a man on a white horse rides by, and we appoint him to be our personal god for the duration. For some men it was a Senator McCarthy… and now it’s a General Scott…

Donald Trump has just returned from a seven day (May 20-27) trip to the Middle East, the Holy See, and to Brussels. In Saudi Arabia he danced and smiled, happy in the company of autocrats with a dismal record of human rights. Women don’t drive. But he admired the five-story projected image of his face on a building. In Brussels, he met with the leaders of America’s main allies, the 27 European nations that, along with the United States and Canada, from NATO, the alliance that contained the expansion of Soviet Communism and led directly to the collapse of the USSR. It’s successor state, Russia, is not much better. It has similar expansionist ideas. NATO today is as relevant as it was during the Cold War.

Just days before embarking on this historic trip, Trump fired the director of the FBI, James Comey, because Comey, Trump acknowledged, was aggressively investigating Russian involvement in the election. The next day, smiling and laughing, he met with the Russian Foreign Minister and Ambassador. On May 25, Trump, now wearing his customary scowl, delivered, in the words of an editorial in Le Monde, “an inappropriate and uncalled-for tirade, divisive and counter-productive” to the leaders of the states who have been for 60 plus years America’s staunchest allies, and who, honoring their NATO commitment under Article 5 of the treaty, sent troops to Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks.

This meeting with the NATO leaders was as significant as anything Trump has done, significant because of what he did not say. He declined to affirm his commitment to the mutual defense of the alliance partners. The text of Trump’s speech had been approved by the Pentagon and State Department. Yet, at the last moment, to the astonishment of Secretaries Mattis and Tillerson, the following sentence was removed: “We face many threats, but I stand here before you with a clear message: the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance and to Article 5 is unwavering.” Removed by whom. Bannon? By Trump himself?

The implication was that America was withdrawing its commitments to Europe, that “America first” will override the mutual responsibilities of the alliance, the “all for one and one for all” model that has made it work so well. “America First” was the slogan of the isolationist, pro-fascist movements, Charles Lindberg’s coterie, in the run-up to the Second World War. Franklin Roosevelt’s answer to the isolationists was “When peace has been broken anywhere, the peace of all countries everywhere is in danger.” This is the principle behind NATO that Trump rejects.

No one could have been more pleased by Trump’s visit to Brussels than Putin. Trump’s act could have been scripted in the Kremlin. NATO is weakening, undermined by the words and actions of its most important member. We can be quite sure that Putin will begin to dream that further expansion is possible. The Crimea is done, gobbled up, and since Ukraine is not in the NATO alliance, there has been limited push-back. There have been financial sanctions. Questions have been raised concerning the ending of the sanctions; were these the subject of talks between the Trump team and the Russians? And the future of the smaller states along the border with Russia, all formerly part of the Soviet empire, the Warsaw Pact? If Putin invades tiny Estonia will Trump honor American commitments?

Two weeks after the NATO speech, meeting in the White House with the president of Romania, Trump appeared to reverse himself, saying that he would come to the defense of any NATO pact country that was attacked. Which is it to be? An unsettled NATO, unsure of US intentions, is unquestionably in Putin’s interest.

In the meantime, NATO troops, representing ten of the treaty members, including US forces, are conducting exercises along the eastern border of the Alliance, the Baltic States and Poland. The concern of those governments, which they state openly, is a major Russian military “exercise,” called Zapad 2017, scheduled for September. Similar “exercises” preceded the annexation of the Crimea and the ongoing “liberation” of Eastern Ukraine.

Given the importance of the United States to the future political map of Europe, the Russian involvement in American democratic process is a big deal. From a New York Times editorial, June 9, 2017: 

Russia, as Mr. Comey usefully reminded the senators, had gone to unprecedented lengths to disrupt the 2016 presidential election, using “overwhelming” technological firepower.

“This is about America,” Mr. Comey kept saying. Russia “tried to shape the way we think, we vote, we act—that is a big deal,” he added. “They’re coming after America. … They want to undermine our credibility in the face of the world.”

America’s credibility in the world took a terrible blow as a result of Trump’s Brussels speech. Except for the certainty that Trump is simply clueless, unaware that he has been manipulated, that he thinks with his Id, thinks breaking things demonstrates that he has a “vision,” and that ineptitude is a “fresh” approach, one would think treason. It may be simple venality: corruption connected to Russian banks and loans.

Trump returned from the G7 meeting in Sicily having decided not just to harangue, insult and repudiate our NATO allies but also to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord. These two acts are linked by the character of the man making them, and by the fact that both agreements, NATO and Paris, require cooperation between nations and individuals, that both require an idea about what Thomas Jefferson called the “fraternity of nations,” values that Trump clearly does not have. His is a winner-take-all worldview; there are winners and losers.

195 nations had agreed to the basic premise of the Paris Accord, that human activity is causing a dangerous rising of global temperatures that, if unchecked, will wreak catastrophic damage to economies, to political stability, to global health and food supplies, and even to the survivability of the human species on the planet. 195 nations agreed to a voluntary effort to curb their greenhouse emissions, each nation as best fitted their capacity, and that the only enforcement method would be peer pressure and the climate itself, mother nature. After May 29, there were 194 nations.

The United States had joined just two other states, Syria and Nicaragua, in saying no. Syria and Nicaragua don’t count for much on the scale of greenhouse gas emissions, but the US rejection, because it is both the largest emitter of greenhouse gases and is—or was—the world’s leader in trying to find solutions to the problem, is a big deal. Trump has ceded the leadership role in the climate issue to China. The hundreds of thousands of jobs and the many economic opportunities that would have come with the shift to a sustainable economy will elude much of America, the America that believes Trump’s fictions about bringing back jobs in coal and blast furnaces. And to China also goes the economic leadership of the global economy. None of this seems to have been in Trump’s calculation.

If indeed it was calculation, and not as some have suggested, just a fit of pique, a response to feeling slighted by the Europeans. The young French president, Emmanuel Macron, had, indeed, pointedly turned his back on him. Trump complained, while in Brussels, about how difficult it has been to set up golf courses in the EU.

Another possible explanation is simply politics, that he wants a second term and to create a political dynasty to pass on his children—kings and mob bosses obsess about such things—and he is feeding his base, the coal miners and the unemployed folks of the Rust Belt. That there are more jobs in renewables than there will ever be again in coal doesn’t matter.

Is he a genuine climate skeptic? No one knows what he thinks. But his remarks on pulling out suggest that he has signed on to the paranoia that global warming is just a scam to distribute American wealth to developing countries that will need help in coping with the effects of climate change, countries that are too small and poor to support a golf course. This remark may seem flippant, but it is probably relevant: Trump operates at this level.

Le Monde, June 4, 5, 6, gives extensive coverage and analysis of Trump’s action. In a lead article titled The Triumph of the religious and the climate skeptics, they cite the anti-science campaigns funded by the Koch Brothers, the methodology of sowing doubt that proved so effective against the anti-smoking efforts in the 1970s. Doubts in matter of climate change are given a cloak of “respectability” by endorsement by pro-business think tanks like the Heritage Foundation. And there are partisan positions behind those who support rejection of the Paris Accords. Le Monde quotes the influential ultraconservative author and radio commentator Mark Levin, who, applauding Trump’s decision, says that environmentalist are left-wing socialists and “environmentalism” is an ideology. To some, it is a Chinese plot.

And religion too is involved. The French are always befuddled by American religiosity: some of the world’s greatest universities and some of the world’s least rational people. Le Monde quotes a Republican representative from Michigan named Tim Walberg: “As a Christian, I believe that there is a creator, God who is much more powerful than we are. And I am convinced that if there is a real problem, he will take care of it.” Eric Erikson, another influential fundamentalist leader, said, “I pray to Jesus, not to mother nature.” Jesus may have walked on water, but He will not hold back the rising sea levels or be able to tame the hurricanes that will surely come.

Vladimir Putin, with marked insouciance, declined to speak even a mildly critical word about Trump’s decision. Le Monde quotes Putin as saying that Obama had made a decision about climate change but one that “the current president didn’t think was well thought out.” The French word that I translated as “thought out” is reflechir. The idea of Trump “reflecting” on anything is laughable.

What went into Trump’s decision? Steven Bannon whispering in his ear about remaking the world order. Perhaps it was Bannon’s incitements combined with what Trump last watched on TV?

Or is it a bit more sinister? And more serious. America’s credibility on the world stage is in tatters. Its “brand,” as reputation is often called, has been ruined, fatally unless Trump and the Republicans are refuted and soon. What self-respecting nation, even one not always rational and only occasionally moral, would follow Donald Trump’s America anywhere.

Trump’s seven days in May has been a great triumph—for Russia. America at home in chaos and disarray; America abroad is a laughing stock, perceived as a menace, a loose cannon. Vladimir Putin must be thinking, “Our man in Washington is working out better than expected.”

There may be a silver lining to this. An act that a Le Monde contributor has characterized as a crime against humanity, a statement with which I concur, has apparently mobilized a broad spectrum resistance in response. Across America, states and cities have chosen and announced that they will ignore the president and proceed with their own efforts to meet the Paris goals. It started with New York, California, and Washington. Now the number of states that have signed on to The United States Climate Alliance is thirteen with another eleven agreeing in principle but not yet signed on. ACTION: if your state is not on this list, begin a campaign to get it on board.

In addition to states, nearly 400 American cities, from large to small, have taken a similar pledge, to ignore Trump and practice environmental best practices in respect to the climate at the local level. ACTION: if your town is not on this list or this list, get them on it.

And the rational side of America’s evangelical movement has signed on as well. Its leaders have decided that this no longer about politics.

A recent New York Times article also discusses how big money shaped the Republican anti-science climate skepticism. 

A Final Thought

There is much talk about impeachment. I think this is a fantasy. The Republican Party has sold its soul, and impeachment is as much a political matter as it is a matter of law. I have a particular fear about this: if Trump feels that he is cornered, he is likely to do something very rash to distract, to become a “wartime” president.

And finally, an action to take. Democrat Jon Ossoff has a fighting chance to taking the Georgia 6th congressional district, a special election on June 28, to replace the man Trump advanced to become HSS secretary. A contribution of any amont would help: https://electjon.com.

The two pictures featured in this article, of Bannon and of a crowd applauding, white men and one woman, were taken at the ceremony during which Trump announced the withdrawal from Paris. Credit: Brendan Smial, AFP, Le Monde.

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