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Friedman: Tony Blair’s lesson for Donald Trump


It’s too bad Democrats wouldn’t enlist a foreigner to deliver their rebuttal to President Donald Trump’s address to Congress. They could have just replayed the speech given 11 days earlier by Tony Blair, the former British prime minister.

It was a passionate appeal to his country to reject its version of Trumpism. Blair said the U.K. must reconsider Brexit, the narrowly won 2016 vote to withdraw from the European Union.

The parallels between Brexit and Trumpism are profound. At their core, both seek to undermine the big systems that have stabilized the globe and spread prosperity, security, rule of law, democracy and openness after two world wars: the European Union, the global trading system, NAFTA, NATO, the United Nations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Brexit and Trumpism argue for abandoning or diminishing all of these in favor of an economic nationalism that will — supposedly painlessly — make Britain and America better off.

Playing with these big systems is dangerous. The critics are great at pointing out the flaws of these systems, but they always forget to mention the hundreds of millions of people they lifted from poverty to prosperity and the extraordinary 70 years of peace they maintained since the end of World War II.

The Brexiters and Trumpsters want to return us to a globe of everyone-for-themselves nationalisms that helped to foster two world wars. They speak of leading grand “movements.” Their vow is “rip it, don’t fix it.” As Blair noted, “The one incontrovertible characteristic of politics today is its propensity for revolt.”

It’s dangerous nonsense. In the Cold War era, the world was glued together by these global institutions and by the fear and the discipline of two superpowers. In the post-Cold War era, the world was glued together by these big global systems and a U.S. hegemon. We’re now in the post-post Cold War world, when U.S. leadership and the glue of these big global systems are needed more than ever — because the simultaneous accelerations in technology, globalization and climate change are weakening states everywhere, spawning super-empowered angry people and creating vast zones of disorder.

If we choose at this time to just put America first, thereby prompting every other country to put its own economic nationalism first — we will be making the gravest mistake we possibly could make.

That was a big part of Blair’s speech. Blair is unpopular in the U.K. — but that’s precisely what liberated him to say what many in British politics know to be true but won’t say: Brexit was a stupid idea; it was sold with bogus data; and following through on it will make Britain poorer, weaker and more isolated — and Europe more unstable.

As Blair said of the EU: “In the long term, this is essentially an alliance of values: liberty, democracy and the rule of law. As the world changes and opens up across boundaries of nation and culture, which values will govern the 21st century? Today, for the first time in my adult life, it is not clear that the resolution of this question will be benign. Britain, because of its history, alliances and character, has a unique role to play in ensuring that it is.”

So does America. But the spread of those values doesn’t animate Trump. The world is a win-lose real estate market for him. In the short term, he may rack up some wins. But America became as prosperous and secure as it is today by building a world in our image — not just a world where we’re the only winners.



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