“Congratulations to President @jairbolsonaro who just made a great inauguration speech,” U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted Tuesday, after the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. “The U.S.A. is with you!”
Richard Haass, the president of the U.S. Council on Foreign Relations, caught the importance of those good wishes. “US foreign policy now aligns with an Axis of illiberalism,” he tweeted Wednesday.
Of all the ways Mr. Trump seeks to transform America, nothing matters more than his efforts to distance the United States from its traditional allies while embracing some of the world’s most unsavoury authoritarians, including Mr. Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has stocked his cabinet with former military officers.
Praising dictators, real and wannabe, is central to Mr. Trump’s foreign policy.
He saluted Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s use of death squads to hunt down alleged criminals. “I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem," he told Mr. Duterte, according to a transcript of a 2017 phone call. “What a great job you are doing.”
We all know about Mr. Trump’s bromance with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who is dismantling Turkey’s democracy, also gets “very high marks" from Mr. Trump.
And notwithstanding the confrontation between the United States and China over trade, Mr. Trump has only the nicest things to say about President Xi Jinping, joking that the United States should join China in eliminating term limits for the presidency.
Such praise has real and dire consequences. Mr. Erdogan helped convince Mr. Trump to withdraw American troops from Syria in a phone call, according to the Associated Press. Now the Turkish President is threatening to “eliminate” the Kurdish forces who were formerly allied with the United States.
Mr. Duterte, meanwhile, has labelled the news organizations that chronicle the thousands of extra-judicial killings in the Philippines “fake news.” A dozen Filipino journalists have been killed since he took office.
And in a half-hour televised speech on Wednesday, Mr. Xi warned that the reunification of China and Taiwan was “inevitable.” He hoped that reunification could be achieved peacefully, but “we make no promise to renounce the use of force and reserve the option of using all necessary means.” Would Mr. Xi be rattling sabres so openly with any other president in the White House?
Compare this with how Mr. Trump treats what used to be his country’s closest allies. After the Group of Seven summit last June, he trashed Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, calling him “very dishonest and weak.”
He has harshly criticized outgoing German Chancellor Angela Merkel, tweeting, “the people of Germany are turning against their leadership as migration is rocking the already tenuous Berlin coalition.”
He has attacked British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plans – although who hasn’t? – and declared that French President Emmanuel Macron “suffers from a very low Approval Rating in France.” And in criticizing Japanese trade policy, the Washington Post reports that Mr. Trump told Prime Minister Shinzo Abe: “I remember Pearl Harbor.” (Japanese officials dispute the quote.)
Which makes this the most important question in American foreign policy: How far will Republicans in Congress let this President go in undermining the Western alliance, while defending some of the worst autocrats and dictators around the world?
Thus far, the answer has been: as far as he wants. Tax cuts, Supreme Court picks and simple team loyalty have thus far kept the Republican leadership, which controls the Senate, silent. But there may be limits. Senators Lindsey Graham and Marco Rubio openly criticized Mr. Trump’s decision to pull U.S. troops from Syria, which appears to have produced at least a temporary pause in the withdrawal plan.
Senator-elect Mitt Romney didn’t even wait to take his seat in the Senate before taking on Mr. Trump. “Trump’s words and actions have caused dismay around the world,” the 2012 Republican presidential nominee wrote in a Washington Post column that appeared Wednesday. “The world needs American leadership, and it is in America’s interest to provide it. A world led by authoritarian regimes is a world – and an America – with less prosperity, less freedom, less peace.”
Mr. Romney’s criticism of Mr. Trump waxes and wanes according to his own self-interest. But it is significant that he is declaring his independence as a senator from the get-go.
On trade and on national security, Republicans in the Senate may exercise greater control in 2019. But for now, the United States has a President who treats democratic leaders as his foes and autocrats as his friends. Whether that’s because he wants to become one himself is, of course, simply speculation.