Donald Trump just recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory occupied in a war 52 years ago. Trump also supports Brexit, doesn't give a fig for NATO, thinks neo-Nazis may be “very fine people,” and is trying to sabotage America's very belated halfway attempt to emulate the national health-care systems of other developed countries.
Yes, these things are connected. They show Trump's role as a prime mover of a global trend: dismantling the measures taken after World War II to prevent another such human-made mega-catastrophe. The trend, and America's role in it, suggests something frightening—that the ability to remember historical events and learn from them may be limited by the length of a human life.
Before the global picture, let's zoom in on the Golan, that narrow piece of Syria taken by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War. In 1981, Israel unilaterally annexed that the Heights. No other country in the world accepted that move—until this week, when Trump signed his proclamation saying, “the United States recognizes that the Golan Heights are part of the State of Israel.”
The first sentence of Trump's declaration notes that Israel “took control of the Golan Heights in 1967 to safeguard its security from external threats.” Unusually for a Trump statement, this is more or less true, even if vague and simplistic. Syrian artillery had been bombarding the communities of northern Israel—sporadically before the war, intensively after the war began. If Israel had done no more than seize the land, stop the barrage, hold the ground pending a peace agreement, and administer the Golan under the international laws on military occupation, it would have been on solid legal and diplomatic ground.
Instead, it began building settlements in the Golan almost immediately, in knowing violation of the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention. Annexation followed. A country has the right and responsibility to defend its citizens. This does not produce a right to take territorial spoils. Even so, the Golan issue dropped off the Mideast agenda when Syria collapsed as a state.
Then Trump put the Golan back on the agenda. Mr. Art-of-the-Deal exacted no trade-off; he gave Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a freebie. As I wrote beforehand, this is an election-campaign favor, meant to help Netanyahu with voters wavering between his Likud and smaller right-wing parties.
Netanyahu immediately spelled out the implication, telling reporters on his flight back from Washington, “Everyone says you can’t hold an occupied territory, but this proves you can. If occupied in a defensive war, then it’s ours.”
That is, at least as far as the Trump administration is concerned, Israel can also go right ahead and annex much of the West Bank. Netanyahu's hard-right rivals regularly propose this, in part to embarrass him. They know that he knows—or rather, knew—that annexation would cause a crisis with Washington. Now he's free to match their promises.
A larger implication: The United States has renounced Security Council Resolution 242 of November 1967. The resolution called for Israeli withdrawal from “territories occupied in the recent conflict.” It also called for recognition of “the territorial inviolability and political independence” of all states in the area. Now Trump says that if you took it in a defensive war you can keep it, and that pre-1967 boundaries are not inviolable.
The Israeli right is foolish to celebrate this. Resolution 242 didn't just require an Israeli withdrawal. It also recognized Israel's pre-1967 boundaries as de jure, not de facto. When Egypt accepted 242, it was accepting Israel's existence and giving up claims on any land within the pre-war borders. By accepting 242, the PLO said it was not demanding Beersheba, Jaffa, or anyplace else in pre-1967 Israel. If Trump succeeds in tearing up 242, he will have destroyed a consensus that also protected Israel.
Now let's take a much wider view, because Resolution 242 isn't just a local Middle Eastern concern. The resolution's preamble contains one of the clearest statements of a principle of international law developed in the aftermath of World War II: “the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”
After floods and earthquakes, local governments change building codes. After World War II, the world changed the political building code. The push to ban wars of conquest began before 1939. But the deaths of tens of millions of people, the cities turned to rubble, the brush with civilization committing suicide made the issue much more pressing: Humanity couldn't survive if countries kept trying to conquer each other.
Yes, the rule has regularly been violated. Morocco grabbed Western Sahara. Russia has grabbed pieces of other post-Soviet republics. But the ban creates a strong disincentive: Your land grab won't be accepted. You might face sanctions. In the extreme case, as when Iraq grabbed Kuwait, you could face the combined armies of other countries. In our age, international law is a bit like the law once was in Dodge City: It exists, but enforcement may depend on gunslingers. Trump's answer is that we don't need enforcement; if you took it, it's yours.
The ban on conquest was just part of the attempt to learn from World War II. The United Nations was an obvious response. Trump stood at the UN General Assembly lectern anddismissed the institution with the words, “America First.” The European Union is an astounding, a miraculous, response to the war: It took nations that fought each other and bound them together. Trump is a Brexit fan (though of course he thinks he could have negotiated a better Brexit deal). NATO—besides being born as a deterrent and a defense against the East bloc—also tied Western Europe together. Trump has no idea what it's for.
As historian Tony Judt showed in Postwar, his great work on recent European history, the Western European welfare states created after 1945 were not products of wild idealism. They were the “insecure child of anxiety.” People understood that the political extremism of the 1930s was “born directly of economic depression and its social costs. Both Fascism and Communism thrived on social despair, on the huge gulf separating rich and poor.” The welfare state was a means to keep the black-shirts and brown-shirts in the past.
One reason, perhaps, that America built so much less of a welfare state was that it was not left so shattered by the war. Obamacare was a very late, partial effort to fill in the most glaring gap, the lack of a national health-care system. Trump hasn't given up on destroying that.
But then, Trumpism is a new movement born of social despair and the renewed gulf between rich and poor. Despair sells the tickets to Trump's mass rallies, and anger handles the amplifiers for his hateful rants.
How is it that a large minority of Americans could vote for this man, or that a majority of Britons could have voted to leave the European Union, or that the new authoritarianism is rising in European countries wounded so deeply seven and eight decades ago by the old authoritarianism?
I won't argue that there's just one reason. But I suggest that a major contributing reason is that eight decades or nine is the span of a human life. Someone who was 13 in September 1939 is 92 or 93 years old today. We are running out of people who can give firsthand testimony of the war itself, much less of the political madness that gave birth to the war. The last earthquake was so long ago that too many people have forgotten the purpose of the strict building code that followed it.
Taken by itself, the Golan is a small issue in world terms, and Trump's proclamation is another squawk in his cacophony. The big issue is Trump's attack on humanity's best efforts to preserve itself.