PARIS — Fresh off a midterm election that cost his party control of Congress, the president headed to France to take the international stage. He brought a boatful of idealism and was greeted by more than 1 million people thronging the streets. He planned to change the world.
A hundred years after Woodrow Wilson’s triumphal arrival, another president who just lost unilateral control on Capitol Hill headed to Paris on Friday.
But President Donald Trump brought no idealism and found no rapturous crowds waiting. He plans to change the world, too — but in his case, to upend the international order that his long-ago predecessor helped build.
Trump’s weekend trip to Paris for the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I effectively marks the end of Wilson’s century. Where the 28th president traveled here at the dawn of a new era for the United States, intent on building a world based on cooperation and collective action, the 45th president has come determined to disentangle his country from the shackles of globalism that he believes has held it back.
The spirit of 1918, when Wilson sought to bind the nations of the world together, has dissipated in recent times with the rise of populism and nationalism on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Wilson, a devoted internationalist, has given way to Trump, a self-declared “nationalist,” and the bookends of their two trips separated by 100 years tell the larger story of the dramatic forces that have transformed the United States and its place in the world.
“You can make the argument that the classical liberal world order has perhaps outlived its normal life span,” said John Lewis Gaddis, a Yale historian. “Obviously, Trump is doing that kind of thinking — not in a manner that is very polite or very decorous for sure, but in a sense responding to the inner strains that have been building for a long time.”
Wilson invested months in Paris in 1918 and 1919 to establish the League of Nations, an ultimately failed experiment in international governance but the precursor to decades of increasing interdependency through its successor, the United Nations, as well as a lattice of security, trade and commercial alliances drawing countries closer together.
Since taking office, Trump has effectively dismantled a host of international pacts that reflect the legacy of the Wilsonian vision. He abandoned the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal with Asia, pulled out of the Iran nuclear agreement and withdrew from the worldwide climate change accord signed here in Paris under his predecessor.
Not finished yet, he has vowed to scrap the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia signed by Ronald Reagan, threatened to sanction the International Criminal Court if it investigates U.S. troops and has even announced that he will pull out of a 144-year-old postal treaty. He has repeatedly assailed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and declared that “the European Union is a foe,” even cheerleading Britain’s exit from the organization.
His “America First” approach has rewritten the compact between the United States and the countries it allied with in World War I and thereafter, leaving them to find their own way in this new era. President Emmanuel Macron of France, the host of this weekend’s ceremonies that will bring together 70 world leaders, is among those trying to step into the vacuum.
Just last week, Macron called for the creation of a “true European army” because the continent can no longer depend on the United States. “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America,” he said. “When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty, which was formed after the 1980s Euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security.”
Trump did not respond right away but instead waited until landing on French soil to fire back at his host. Three minutes after Air Force One touched down at Orly Airport outside Paris, Trump posted a message on Twitter objecting to Macron’s comment. “Very insulting,” he wrote, “but perhaps Europe should pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”
The back-and-forth set the stage for a tense weekend when Trump meets with Macron on Saturday, attends an official dinner and lunch for visiting leaders and joins the ceremony Sunday commemorating the anniversary of the armistice that ended the Great War at the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month.
His arrival could not contrast more starkly with Wilson’s a century ago. When Wilson came to Paris, he was greeted as a savior by throngs of cheering admirers that would be the envy of the crowd-size-obsessed Trump.
“When Woodrow Wilson went to Paris, he was the most beloved, revered man on the planet,” said A. Scott Berg, the author of “Wilson,” a biography of the president. “The entire world was rooting for him. The reception he got was overwhelming.”
It did not last, though. High-minded and highhanded, Wilson used his unrivaled influence as leader of the emerging U.S. power to force the creation of the League of Nations, while deferring to France in drafting the punitive Versailles Treaty in what his own secretary of state called a “victor’s peace” that would breed resentment in Germany leading to another world war.
Wilson, who did not always practice the ideals at home that he preached abroad, also let his stubbornness doom his cherished league, which Republicans prevented the United States from ever joining. The forces of isolationism remained strong until the start of World War II, but eventually Wilsonian internationalism took hold in the form of the United Nations and institutions like the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund that transformed the world.
“He had an unshakable faith in the idea that what was best for the world would be best for the United States,” as Patricia O’Toole wrote in “The Moralist: Woodrow Wilson and the World He Made,” her biography published this year. Trump, by contrast, has made clear that he believes if something is good for the rest of the world, it must be bad for the United States.
Unlike Wilson, Trump is deeply unpopular in Europe. Only 27 percent of people in a 25-nation survey by the Pew Research Center had confidence in the U.S. president to do the right thing in world affairs — and only 9 percent have such confidence in France. Trump cited the survey on the campaign trail this fall to prove that he has the United States’ interests at heart.
“Wilson was seen as someone who was ushering in a new era,” said Margaret MacMillan, author of “Paris 1919: Six Months That Changed the World” about the peace talks. Today, “the mood among Europeans is different. They’re apprehensive. They’re wondering what President Trump will do next. He’s already shown his contempt for European leaders, he’s threatened to pull out of NATO, he’s friendlier with Putin. The mood certainly is one of apprehension, dislike, worry.”
In effect, Trump’s every-country-for-itself philosophy is a return to 19th-century great power politics, one that its advocates call more realistic than Wilson’s naive romanticism.
Walter Russell Mead, a professor at Bard College, has argued that Trump is not an isolationist, as some see him, but is reinventing internationalism to take on American enemies like China, Iran and Russia in a more cleareyed way. “He appears determined to upend the international system as thoroughly and disruptively as he has upended American politics,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal.
James Jay Carafano, a national security scholar at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said both Wilson and Trump reflected deep strains in the United States that had competed and interrelated in the century since the 1918 armistice.
“Wilson and Trump represent two interwoven strands of the DNA of American statecraft — internationalism and realism,” he said. But he said that neither men should be seen as a caricature; Wilson still demonstrated realism in his prosecution of World War I and Trump has not walked away from international and multilateral institutions altogether.
“There is in fact more to be learned by looking at the long continuity of American foreign policy between Wilson and Trump than treating them as doppelgängers,” he said.
Gaddis said internationalism remained the dominant force in the United States when there was still a Cold War and what is remarkable is that it lasted so long once that existential threat evaporated.
“I’m not surprised that some of these foundations have been shaken at this point,” he said. “I have no idea what is going to replace them. I’m not sure I like how it’s shaking. It’s a little too shaky, it seems to me.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.