Opinion | Donald Trump Versus the Jungle

By Thomas L. Friedman

The president’s fantasy is that the U.S. can ignore the global forces of nature.

President Trump at the White House on Monday.CreditCreditSamuel Corum for The New York Times

When Donald Trump spoke at the United Nations on Sept. 25 and provoked guffaws from the diplomats in the audience for his boasting, Trump insisted that they were not laughing at him, they were laughing with him. I wasn’t there so I can’t say what they were actually doing on the outside. But on the inside, I’m pretty sure I know: They were crying.

They were crying over the fact that the America they had come to know and respect over the last 70 years — and whose generosity and security order they had come to rely upon and even take advantage of at times — had left the building.

It had been replaced by Trump’s America, which is different in two fundamental ways.

First, Trump’s America does not see itself as the galvanizer and protector of the liberal global order that brought more peace, prosperity and democracy to more corners of the world over the last 70 years than at any time in history — defying the natural order of things, which is constant jungle-like conflict, protectionism and strongman rule.

Second, Trump’s America is unafraid to engage in the raw exercise of power against any foe or friend to gain economic or geopolitical advantage — no matter how big or small — and, at the same time, is ready to overlook any human rights abuse or killing by any country deemed friendly to Trump personally or not interesting to him geopolitically.

But hey, wait a minute: Does Trump have a point? International relations isn’t a knitting circle. Could it be that America is actually best served by having a lying, unethical bully at the helm, someone who squeezes the last drop of milk tariffs out of every ally or adversary, pushes back on China and gives the back of his hand to “globalist” multilateral institutions? As Trump declared: “I am the president of the United States. I’m not the president of the globe.” So get the hell off my lawn!

It all depends just how far Trump goes with this. Will it be a mild departure from the approach of every other U.S. president of the postwar era — each of whom understood that we had an overall interest in being the overall steward of a democratizing global order — or a radical departure? I don’t know yet, but if you look around, a lot of people are acting as if the cat’s away so the mice can play.

For instance, Saudi Arabia, according to Turkish reports, flew two private jets into Istanbul last week with a hit team and brazenly abducted or murdered the moderate Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had stopped by the Saudi consulate to pick up some paperwork needed to remarry. There is no way that the regime of the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, would have dared to do that if it thought Trump would care. And so far, Trump hasn’t. But history will, and the stain on M.B.S.’s reign will be lasting.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin has felt quite confident about poisoning ex-spies living in Britain. And how about that Russian investigative journalist who just happened to jump out a window? And how about China arresting the head of the global policing organization, Interpol, Meng Hongwei, a Chinese citizen, when he was home for a visit? He is now being investigated for corruption.

And then there were the protests in Bulgaria’s capital, Sofia, over the arrests of two reporters, a Bulgarian and a Romanian, who were “apprehended as they tried to film the subjects of their investigation burning documents related to the misuse of E.U. funds,” according to Balkaninsight.com.

And don’t get me started on the two Reuters reporters in Myanmar who were just sentenced to seven years in prison for “investigating the killing of villagers from the Rohingya Muslim minority by security forces and civilians,” Reuters reported. In Egypt and Turkey, activists are now regularly “disappeared” with impunity.

The U.S. can’t always make the world better, but we can, by what we say and do, give foreign leaders pause about exercising their darkest sides. And we’re not.

So, no, Trump doesn’t have a point. Robert Kagan, in his incisive, elegantly written, new book about America’s unique role in the world, “The Jungle Grows Back,” makes that clear.

Kagan’s core thesis, as he explained in an interview, is that if you look at the broad sweep of human history, “democracy is the rarest form of government.” That’s because for most of history great powers constantly clashed and most people were constantly poor. “But for the last 70-plus years we have been living in the greatest prosperity ever known — globally — and we’ve witnessed the most widespread booming of democracy and the longest period of great-power peace ever known.”

The key pillars of this liberal world order, Kagan argued, were the conversion of Germany and Japan from aggressive dictatorships to pacifist democracies, the building of a global trading regime and the backing of it all with certain made-in-America norms and rules of commerce and geopolitics, buttressed by the U.S. Navy, Air Force and Army.

“We did not do all of this out of an abundance of generosity, or the post-World War II statesmen saying, ‘Gosh, how do we make the world a better place?’” he added. “It actually came from them saying: ‘How do we prevent the world backsliding into the kind of world war we just survived?’” This was not charity for them, but cold, calculating self-interest. They knew any order they created would pay back a hundred times for the world’s biggest economy.

In other words, this liberal world order “is not the product of human evolution” — as if human beings have somehow learned to be more peaceful with one another, Kagan argued. It developed because the most powerful nation on the planet, the United States of America, “was born of Enlightenment principles,” and, after being dragged into two world wars in the 20th century, it decided to use its power to spread and maintain those principles — not everywhere and always, but in many places a lot of the time.

And when I say “power” I don’t just mean military power. I mean also convening power. When the U.N.’s top climate body issues a report — as it just did — that says our weather, our ocean levels, our agriculture and our ecosystems are going to be disrupted, so much more than people realize, unless we take huge steps now to mitigate climate change, and the U.S. president ignores it, we are failing in our task to stabilize the liberal global order and are paving the way for disorder.

“Every gardener understands that the forces of nature are always trying to overrun it with vines and weeds — and it is a constant struggle to keep the jungle back,” said Kagan. Same in geopolitics. We are always tending toward tribalism and authoritarianism and great power conflict. That’s the jungle always trying to return. And U.S. values backed by U.S. power have been what prevented that.

So when Trump says that we are just going to look out for ourselves, he shows his ignorance of both history and economics. Trump is pursuing “a great American fantasy,” added Kagan. And it is not a fantasy that we can be “isolationists” and we’ll be O.K. It’s a fantasy that we can be “irresponsible” and we’ll be O.K. The world will be far more threatened by too little American order-making than too much.

“It will be springtime for thugs,” Kagan concluded — and the signs of that are now multiplying.

Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter (@NYTopinion), and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Op-Ed columnist. He joined the paper in 1981, and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman Facebook