There is a lot to criticize about Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain: Brexit is a horrible idea. Her cabinet is a snake pit of personal and political scandal. Her foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, seems unhinged.
But at least she knows how the leader of a democracy should respond to an egomaniacal, autocratic leader who shows no concern for international law, human rights, civil liberties or freedom of thought and speech.
No, I’m not talking about President Trump.
“It is Russia’s actions which threaten the international order on which we all depend,” May said on Monday night at the Lord Mayor’s banquet in London, where she delivered the kind of tough-minded message to the Kremlin that American presidents used to send:
I want to be clear about the scale and nature of these actions. Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea was the first time since the Second World War that one sovereign nation has forcibly taken territory from another in Europe. Since then, Russia has fomented violence in the Donbas, repeatedly violated the air space of several European countries, and mounted a sustained campaign of cyberespionage and disruption. This has included meddling in elections and hacking the Danish Ministry of Defense and the Bundestag, among many others. It is seeking to weaponize information, deploying its state-run media organizations to plant fake stories and Photoshopped images in an attempt to sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions.
May had a “very simple message” for the Kremlin. “We know what you were doing and you will not succeed,” she said, “because you underestimate the resilience of our democracies, the enduring attraction of free and open societies, and the commitment of Western nations to the alliances that bind us.”
Trump’s message to the Kremlin is simple, too: Do what you want.
He believes President Vladimir Putin is “sincere” in denying Russian attempts to meddle in the American elections, and is tired of asking about it — if he ever actually did. He is not going to raise human rights with Putin. He’s eager to work with Russia on Syria, where Putin is determined to shore up a bloodthirsty dictator.
On Oct. 1, Trump’s administration ignored a deadline set by Congress to say how it will carry out sanctions against Russia for its cyberattack on American democracy. Instead, Trump has spent his time trying to undermine the Russian investigations, which he calls a “witch hunt,” even though the list of contacts between Trump aides and the Russians just keeps growing.
As a candidate, Trump blamed President Barack Obama for the annexation of Crimea and even hinted he might recognize the seizure. “I’m going to take a look at it,” Trump said on ABC in August 2016. “But, you know, the people of Crimea, from what I’ve heard, would rather be with Russia than where they were. And you have to look at that, also.”
The Kremlin, you may recall, also said the people of Hungary and Czechoslovakia wanted Soviet tanks to crush their democracy movements a half-century ago and that it was invited into Afghanistan.
Far from denouncing Putin’s continuous assaults on human rights and free speech in Russia, Trump has praised him as being a better leader than Obama.
And he gave a pass to the world’s autocrats in his United Nations speech this fall, telling them “you should always put your countries first.”
“The nation-state remains the best vehicle for elevating the human condition,” Trump said, just the sort of message that dictators like Putin have been wanting to hear from the United States for decades.
So much for being the leader of the free world.
Contrast Trump’s behavior not just with May’s, but also that of Ronald Reagan, who was viscerally opposed to Communism and entered office determined to bring down the Soviet empire.
Reagan came to believe that Mikhail Gorbachev was trying to contract, not expand, Soviet power. But he never lost sight of the Russian threat to the West and kept up the pressure even as he developed a relationship with Gorbachev aimed at keeping the world safe from Russia, not at keeping Russia safe from the world.
Reagan and Gorbachev came tantalizing close in 1986 to agreeing on nuclear disarmament. Trump wants to have more nuclear weapons and has threatened to use them.
Trump studiously avoids talking about human rights in Russia (and Turkey, China, Saudi Arabia and the Philippines, among others).
In February, when Bill O’Reilly pointed out to Trump that Putin is “a killer,” the president replied: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country’s so innocent?”
(Note to Trump: Look up the phrase “false equivalence” during a commercial break on “Fox & Friends.”)
In October, Trump’s administration waived human rights requirements and approved the sale of $5 billion sale of fighter planes to Bahrain.
Asked about this disturbing trend on Nov. 2, Trump’s national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, said: ““How much does it help to yell about these problems?”
A lot, actually, like when Reagan went to Berlin and yelled: “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Andrew Rosenthal became an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times in June 2016 after more than nine years as the Editorial Page editor of The Times, overseeing the newspaper’s Opinion section.