PARIS — America, since its birth, has embodied democracy. Democracy against the monarchy, against the old colonial world, against the ambitions of central powers during World War I, then against the totalitarianism of the Nazis and their Japanese allies, finally against the Soviet and Communist totalitarianism during the Cold War.
For a re-emerging but still fragile Europe, America has continued to stand as a form of life insurance in an ever more dangerous and complicated world. Global terrorism has been hitting us hard, Russia was becoming a threat again, China's ambitions were growing — but America was still there. It was sometimes incoherent, even occasionally brutal, but in the end it was our ally, if not our moral compass.
The fusing of populism and nationalism that just carried Donald Trump to the White House unhinges our convictions and reinforces our uncertainties. On Nov. 8, 2016, America barged into a new phase — perhaps its fifth — in its relation to the world.
The first and longest phase began with George Washington's first term in 1789 and ended with the opening of the Spanish-American War of 1898. During that first era, America focused first and foremost on itself, starting with the conquest of its continental territory and then, painfully, of its national identity through the Civil War.
The second phase went from 1898 to 1945, during which America behaved as one great power among others, acquiring imperial possession — very trendy at the time — and took part in the two world wars. There was, of course, a period of isolationism between the Treaty of Versailles and 1941, a break that had tragic consequences for Europe and the world.
Rise and fade of a superpower
The third phase, 1945-1991, saw America become one of the two superpowers in a bipolar world. Through international institutions like NATO, it was the protector of the Western bloc's security. The collapse of the Soviet Union, victim of its internal contradictions, translated into a victory for an America that had repeatedly seen its power (both soft and hard) grow during the three previous phases.
A fourth era started with the end of the Cold War, and ended before our eyes last week with Donald Trump's victory. The 9/11 attacks was a clear marker in the middle of this quarter-century period but, during these years, America probably held more power than ever before in its history. But it also multiplied its failures, including unsuccessful and inconclusive military campaigns, costly as much for its image as its budget — and of course, for the damage inflicted on the peoples that America aimed to save.
U.S. Marines in Afghanistan in 2003 — Photo: U.S. Army
Washington in recent years simply lost its touch and, given how nature abhors a vacuum, this left enough room for a humiliated power like Russia or a re-emerging civilization like China.
This putting into perspective was essential to understand the meaning of last Tuesday for the international order. By voting "America First" in a double fit of populism and nationalism, Trump's America would almost seem nostalgic for the first period of its relation to the world, the one that spanned from 1789 to 1898.
But of course, this is a perfectly anachronistic reaction, which is dangerous to the stability of a Western world that is now at risk of losing its singular protector, and model, despite its many misguided ways and failures, from Vietnam to Afghanistan.
For all those who, like me, have always felt closer to Barack Obama than to Vladimir Putin, for all those who favor the geography of values over the value of geography, this election is a great shock. Just like that, more than 70 years of history were brutally called into question.
The question, indeed, isn't just whether President Trump will implement candidate Trump's program. Beyond the reality of who he is and what he does is also the important matter of how it all gets perceived around the world. Our image of America and the dream it embodied for an important part of the world were shattered before our eyes. This is no longer about "fixing" America, but about how to avoid it from disintegrating entirely.
Beyond America's crisis of legitimacy, through the citizens' choice for their next president, there is, of course, the weakening of democracy in general. How can we express outrage at the evolution of Central Europe or worry about the rise of the National Front in France after Donald Trump's victory? And how can we condemn the course of events in the Philippines, which under their new president seem to have chosen China over the United States?
On a pure realpolitik level, for China, Donald Trump's arrival at the White House can only be perceived as the confirmation that the democratic West has passed the torch of History on to Asia and its authoritarian models. Putin's Russia can therefore feel like it was not only right in choosing despotism, but that it also now has a clear path to the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If you aren't worried, you don't understand.