The European and transatlantic projects dodged a disaster on Sunday when Emmanuel Macron defeated the far-right Euroskeptic, NATO critic, and Putin admirer Marine Le Pen for the French presidency.
But in capturing more than 40 percent of the vote, Le Pen came even closer to the Élysée Palace than she did in 2017. This result should kill off the fantasy that the horrors of the Russian war against Ukraine — and the resolve Brussels, Berlin, Paris, and Washington have so far mustered against it — will naturally return Western electorates to the liberal-democratic fold.
Le Pen has indeed been somewhat humbled: She backed off her vow to leave the EU in the wake of the Brexit debacle and has downplayed her flirtations with Putin since the start of the war. But like Donald Trump, she has never forthrightly disavowed the Russian dictator or atoned for her long affiliation with him. Yet amid a major confrontation that may mark the start of a second Cold War, her policies of hardening European borders and weakening NATO’s joint command were not disqualifying to more than 40 percent of the French electorate. Similarly depressing election results were recently posted in Hungary — where Victor Orbán uses his power to tilt the playing field to his advantage but can also boast of genuine popularity — and in Serbia.
Russian oligarchs are smarting from sanctions. But neither in Europe nor in the United States have the politicians who cozied up to Putin paid a serious price for coddling a dictator who is now an open adversary of their countries. Stateside, the Republican Party is getting away with singing the melody of hawkishness on Russia over the dissonant bass line of fealty to Donald Trump. Its Washington wing has demanded no penance from the former president for his long flirtation with Putin and tolerates the likes of Tucker Carlson and J.D. Vance, who parrot Russian propaganda or profess indifference to Ukraine.
This contradiction does not yet seem to have registered with the Republican rank-and-file. But with critical primary and midterm elections coming up, the big question is whether American voters will see (as Putin himself surely does) that Donald Trump and the movement he leads pose a major threat to the integrity of the NATO alliance and to the liberal order that has kept the United States secure for almost 80 years.
The Trumpist threat to America and the West is double-barreled. On the one hand, Trump’s relentless attacks on democracy threaten to undermine the United States from within, and they belittle the values for which Ukrainians are now laying down their lives. If neither American nor Ukrainian democracy is preferable to strongman rule, it’s not clear why we should be fighting Putin at all. On the other hand, Trump’s repeated rhetorical assaults on NATO and his isolationist instincts mean that even if he professes his devotion to the alliance during a 2024 presidential campaign — and there’s no guarantee he will do so — the Russians will be sorely tempted to test whether he means it. If Trump becomes president once again, his mere presence in office will be a liability to NATO deterrence and American security.
In 1952, Dwight D. Eisenhower offered to cede the GOP’s presidential nomination to the man who had long sought it, Ohio Senator Robert Taft, under the condition that Taft abandon his long-time isolationism and back the NATO alliance that had emerged from the wreckage of World War II. What Eisenhower understood — and what many Republicans seem to have forgotten — is that the only way for the United States to avoid getting drawn into a major European war is to prevent it from happening in the first place. Taft refused to budge, and his isolationism was consigned to the political wilderness — until now.
Sadly, there is no nationally popular figure in the Republican Party today capable of Eisenhower’s leadership. Therefore it will fall to Democrats and lower-ranking Republicans to clarify the stakes. To the inevitable charge that they are carrying water for a global elite, American internationalists must reply with a page out of Macron’s playbook: “When you speak to Russia,” the French president told Marine Le Pen in their debate last week, “you are talking to your banker.”
The global elite of Brussels and Davos that so many voters detest has certainly led us astray too often. But the alternative that authoritarian populists like Trump are offering is not popular sovereignty. It’s deference to the elites of Moscow and Beijing.