What did Trump mean during his speech in Poland by asking "whether the West has the will to survive?" Photo by Pawel Supernak/EPA
In his Warsaw, Poland address last week, President Donald Trump punctuated a perfectly vanilla speech with the stunning question of "whether the West has the will to survive?" That raises not only many more questions. But one wonders if the president is living in 1914, 1939 or 1947.
The most obvious question is survive what? Yes, Russia has enough nuclear weaponry to obliterate Western society. In the process, it would be turned to radioactive ash. So while Russia may be a serious adversary, it is not a serious existential threat.
The Islamic State and violent Islamist radicalism are serious dangers. However, to the West -- unlike the regions and states infected by them -- IS is not existential. And if IS is to be contained and defeated, the effort must come from Arab and Islamic states supported by the West.
So the question must be repeated -- to survive what? In my last book, A Handful of Bullets -- How the Murder of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand Still Menaces the West, I identified the greatest threats to advanced society in the form of the new Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. The first was failed and failing government from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe with Brussels and Washington in between.
The second was economic despair, disparity and disruption with income inequality as the major symptom of this danger. Third was demonized ideology largely in the form of radical Islam. Last and potentially the gravest threat was environmental catastrophe from climate change to pandemics.
The test will be how the West reacts to these challenges and dangers even though events in North Korea, Syria, Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Ukraine and in Africa are both testing and preoccupying Western governments. Yet, it is unclear that any of these visible dangers, other than nuclear war or an environmental catastrophe, are existential and threaten the survival of the West. Indeed, it would be hard for Russia and China to exist without the West.
The president's question could be put differently. On the current trajectory, the standards of living and expectations of future Western generations will experience are at grave risk. One quite shocking statistic underscores this grim trend. In 1964, before the Gulf of Tonkin incident that embroiled the U.S. in the Vietnam War, about 75 percent of all Americans trusted government and believed that their children and grandchildren would lead better lives. Today, that figure is more than headed in the opposite direction -- nearly two-thirds of Americans neither trust government nor believe standards of living will rise in the future as they have in the past.
Reversing these trends is perhaps the major and thus far most invisible challenge facing governments on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific. In China, for example with an underclass of arguably half a billion people, to maintain "stability" and avert protests and rebellion, the economy must sustain high rates of growth. In the U.S., debts, deficits and unfilled liabilities for pension plans, social security and Medicare are ticking time bombs. As Britain tries to extricate itself from the European Union, uncertainties over the terms of Brexit threaten to impose huge restraints on its economy regardless of whether the super-regulatory morass from Brussels is severed or not. And Russia is far from stable.
It would seem then that a better challenge the president might have posed is how can the G20 meet the broader realities and dangers posed by the Four New Horsemen rather than questioning whether or not the West will survive. Clearly, obvious national security dangers and threats must be met. However, none is existential to the West.
The most serious of these horsemen is failed and failing government. Washington is not merely in gridlock. Government is broken with both political parties contaminated by a combination of extremes of left and right and poisoned by an atmosphere as toxic perhaps as anytime in the nation's history including the run up to the Civil War.
Internationally, global leadership is desperately needed. The U.S. is the only responsible power capable of that leadership. Questioning the viability of the will of the West to survive can only be read as questioning the will of the U.S. to lead. One hopes that is not what President Trump meant. But words count and at this point in time, his question of Western will casts the role of the U.S. in serious doubt.
Harlan Ullman has served on the Senior Advisory Group for Supreme Allied Commander Europe (2004-16) and is a senior adviser at Washington, D.C.'s Atlantic Council, chairman of two private companies and principal author of the doctrine of shock and awe. His next book, due out this year, is Anatomy of Failure: Why America Loses Wars It Starts, which argues failure to know and to understand the circumstances in which force is used guarantees failure. Follow him on Twitter @harlankullman.