Opinion: The GOP bumper sticker: Trump first. Putin second. America third

File photo/Damon Winter/The New York Times / House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Oct. 26, 2023. “Trump First” means that a bill that would strengthen America and its allies must be set aside so that America can continue to boil in polarization, Vladimir Putin can triumph in Ukraine and our Southern border can remain an open sore — until and unless Trump becomes president once more, as NYT columnist Thomas Friedman writes.
File photo/Damon Winter/The New York Times / House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, speaks with reporters at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, on Oct. 26, 2023. “Trump First” means that a bill that would strengthen America and its allies must be set aside so that America can continue to boil in polarization, Vladimir Putin can triumph in Ukraine and our Southern border can remain an open sore — until and unless Trump becomes president once more, as NYT columnist Thomas Friedman writes.

Every so often there is a piece of legislation on Capitol Hill that defines America and its values — that shows what kind of country we want to be. I would argue that when it comes to the $118.3 billion bipartisan compromise bill in the Senate to repair our broken immigration system and supply vital aid to Ukraine, Taiwan and Israel, its passage or failure won't define just America but also the world that we're going to inhabit.

There are hinges in history, and this is one of them. What Washington does — or does not do — this year to support its allies and secure our border will say so much about our approach to security and stability in this new post-post-Cold War era. Will the United States carry the red, white and blue flag into the future — or just a white flag? Given the pessimistic talk coming out of the Capitol, it is looking more and more like the white flag — autographed by Donald Trump.

Barring some last-minute surprise, a terrible thing is about to happen — thanks largely to a Republican Party that has lost its way as it falls in lock step behind a man whose philosophy is not "America First" but "Donald Trump First." Our allies be damned. Our enemies be emboldened. Our children's future security be mortgaged.

Today's GOP bumper sticker: Trump First. Putin Second. America Third.

"The United States has for some time ceased to be a serious country. Our extreme polarization combined with institutional rules that privilege minorities makes it impossible for us to meet our international obligations," political theorist Francis Fukuyama remarked on the American Purpose website. "The Republican Party has grown very adept at hostage holding. ... The hard-core MAGA wing represents a minority within a minority, yet our institutional rules permit them to veto decisions clearly favored by a majority of Americans."

How we came to this awful moment is a longer, deeper story.

This emerging post-post-Cold War era is a real throwback to the kind of dangerous, traditional great-power competition prevalent in the Cold War and World War II and most of history before that. Unfortunately, we have arrived at this moment with too many elected officials — especially in the senior ranks of the Republican Party — who never experienced such a world, and with a defense industrial base woefully unprepared for this world. Believe it or not, President Joe Biden's national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, has had to spend hours of valuable time each month searching the world for 155 mm shells for the Ukrainian army because we don't have enough.

That's crazy. And it is particularly crazy at a time when three revisionist powers — Russia, China and Iran — are each simultaneously probing every day to see if they can push back America and its allies along three different frontiers — Europe, the South China Sea and the Middle East. They probe, individually and through proxies, to see how we react — if we react — and then probe some more.

"Because of generational change, most of America's political elite today grew up in the relatively benign, pax-Americana post-Cold War era — 1989 to 2022" (when Putin invaded Ukraine) "and they have lost the habit and the knack of thinking about global politics in military terms," U.S. foreign policy historian Michael Mandelbaum told me. "Very few members of the elite today have served in the military."

This is "very different from the Cold War era, when most of our policymaking elite were people who experienced World War II," added Mandelbaum, author of the forthcoming book "The Titans of the Twentieth Century: How They Made History and the History They Made." "Now, after 30 years of the post-Cold War era, Joe Biden is one of the few remaining leaders who was a policymaker during the Cold War — and issues of grand strategy and the management of great-power competition are no longer a major part of our public discourse."

Trump, like Biden, grew up in the Cold War, but he spent a lot of it contemplating his wealth rather than contemplating the world. Trump's instincts, Mandelbaum noted, are really a throwback to the interwar period between World War I and World War II, when a whole segment of the elite felt World War I was a failure and a mistake — the equivalent today of Iraq and Afghanistan — and then approached the dawn of World War II as isolationists and protectionists, seeing our allies as either hopeless or leeches.

As for Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, I wonder how often he uses his passport. I wonder if he has a passport. So far, he seems to care only about serving Trump's interests, even if that means playing extremely risky games with foreign policy.

Meanwhile, many on the left emerged from this post-Cold War era with the view that the biggest problem in the world is not too little U.S. power but too much — the lessons they drew from Iraq and Afghanistan.

And so, who will tell the people? Who will tell the people that America is the tent pole that holds up the world? If we let that pole disintegrate, your kids won't grow up in just a different America; they'll grow up in a different world, and a much worse one.

If this is the future, and our friends from Europe to the Middle East to Asia sense that we are going into hibernation, they will all start to cut deals — European allies with Putin, Arab allies with Iran, Asian allies with China. We won't feel the change overnight, but, we will feel it over time.

Yes, America still has considerable power, but that power led to influence because allies and enemies knew we were ready to use it to defend ourselves and help our friends defend themselves and our shared values. All of that will now be in doubt if this bill goes down for good.

Remember this week, folks — because historians surely will.

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