H. R. McMaster, Donald Trump’s former national-security adviser, used to warn of the dangers of “revisionist powers.” He had in mind countries like China and Russia that are newly ascendant and determined to amend to their advantage the global status quo: a decades-old, U.S.-led international system of free trade, military and diplomatic alliances, and liberal rules and institutions that govern how countries conduct themselves.
But the U.S. president’s recent Europe trip, which whisked him from a confrontational breakfast with the secretary general of NATO to a conciliatory lunch with the president of Russia, made one thing clearer than it’s ever been before: The call is also coming from inside the house. Trump is a revisionist, even if many of his advisers may still conceive of the United States as the world’s leading status-quo power.
Trump’s revisionist streak was on display in Belgium when the president reportedly threatened to reconsider America’s involvement in NATO if the military alliance’s members don’t spend far more on their own defense. When Fox News’s Tucker Carlson questioned this week why the United States should be obligated to defend another NATO member if it came under attack—the commitment at the very heart of the alliance—the president shook his head in disbelief and responded, “I understand what you’re saying. I’ve asked the same question … That’s the way it was set up. Don’t forget, I just got here a little more than a year and a half ago.” The implication was that he needed more time to shake things up.