White House

Trump's Bogus War

He's undermining Western values, not defending them.

Looking for an enemy.

Photographer: Janek Skarzynski/AFP/Getty Images

Donald Trump "postponed" his summer trip to London for fear of meeting with large-scale protests in a city whose mayor he has obsessively attacked in tweets. Angry protesters and exasperated world leaders await him in Hamburg this weekend. On Thursday in Warsaw, though, he found the kind of audience he craves: a Western head of state who nodded appreciatively as he attacked CNN and NBC.

Then, addressing a bussed-in crowd, Trump outlined his menacing vision of a clash of civilizations: "The fundamental question of our time," he said, "is whether the West has the will to survive." This is certainly a question that Trump’s own actions have repeatedly provoked. Trump went on to ask whether "we have the confidence in our values to defend them at any cost?"

While identifying their enemies -- Russia, Muslim terrorists -- he did not clearly define what "our values" were. Nevertheless, he praised Poland for defending them, adding “we must work together to counter forces, whether they come from inside or out, from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith and tradition that make us who we are.”

Needless to say, the U.S. president in this speech, termed "philosophical" by one Trump administration official, blithely exposed his own claims as hollow.

For one, contemporary Poland is very far from following its "culture, faith and tradition." Once celebrated for its ethnic diversity, Poland is now one of the most homogeneous countries on earth, and seems determined to stay that way even as millions of Poles emigrate. The leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party refuses to admit migrants on the grounds that they carry dangerous diseases and are a public health hazard. Ignoring Pope Francis’s exhortations to welcome refugees, Catholic bishops in Poland parrot the xenophobic rhetoric of their political leaders.

Cracking down on the judiciary, media and opposition parties, Trump’s Polish hosts have been modeling their country on Viktor Orban’s increasingly authoritarian Hungary. The Hungarian prime minister, himself a fervent admirer of Turkey’s despotic leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, openly champions "illiberal democracy" and mocks the kind of democratic values commonly associated with "the West." For many within Europe, the question isn't whether to emulate the values of Poland and Hungary, but how and when these two rogue member states of the European Union should be penalized for their assault on civil society.

Trump himself has launched an onslaught on values that most human beings -- in the non-West as well as the West -- cherish. This has sparked an explosion of commentary hailing German Chancellor Angela Merkel as the true leader of the free world and defender of Western values. But we must be suspicious of this boosterish rhetoric about civilization and values, to which Trump can resort just as easily as commentators in the mainstream media that he despises.

Invocations of the free world and talk of Western values came into vogue during the cold war, and were meant to assert Western democracy’s superiority over Communism. They were never very convincing even back then: The free world often supported brutal dictatorships, quickly discarding its values when it felt the need.

Those pushing back against moralizing Western rhetoric, such as Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamed, invoked alternative "Asian values." Today, such forms of self-flattery look particularly meaningless.

Values are not exclusive to specific regions or peoples. Democratic and pluralist cultures, for instance, can be found all over the world; demagogues and terrorists can spring from any society.

Labels such as "Western values" or "Asian values" invoke grand moral and political communities. But these imagined communities appear cohesive only so long as they can clearly identify an antagonist.

And communities fabricated around fear and distrust of an adversary are also more often weakened from within than outside. Ever since the U.S. reacted to Sept. 11 with illegal wars, torture, rendition to Guantanamo and invasive surveillance, many Europeans have doubted whether a "West" built in opposition to the totalitarian East still existed. Those doubts are unlikely to be erased by the grim spectacle of Donald Trump riffing on Western civilization in the doting company of Poland’s ethnic-racial supremacists. It is time to retire, for the sake of clarity, all talk of Western, or Eastern, values.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

    To contact the author of this story:
    Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor responsible for this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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