BRUSSELS ― Donald Trump’s first trip abroad as president showed “how quickly and decisively” he “is acting to strengthen alliances,” White House press secretary Sean Spicer said Tuesday.
But if Trump strengthened America’s alliances in Europe, no one told America’s European allies. Instead, in remarks ranging from cautionary to disparaging, European heads of state have described a churlish, impulsive American leader whose actions have alienated them and threaten to upend the U.S.-led post-World War II international order.
Interacting with Trump showed German Prime Minister Angela Merkel “that we Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands,” she said Sunday. Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron’s noticeably tense and lengthy handshake with Trump was a deliberate effort to “show that we won’t make little concessions, even symbolic ones,” he told a French outlet in an interview published Sunday. And as Spicer boasted of the president’s successful alliance-building, a picture of European heads of state openly mocking the U.S. president was making its way around Twitter. In a photograph that quickly went viral, the prime ministers of Denmark, Norway, Finland, Sweden and Iceland gathered around a soccer ball in a pose that bore an obvious resemblance to a recent picture of Trump and the heads of Egypt and Saudi Arabia placing their hands on a glowing orb to symbolize counterterrorism cooperation.
Disagreements between Washington and its allies across the Atlantic are not unprecedented, and Spicer spun Merkel’s statement as a positive development, suggesting it fulfilled Trump’s long-stated goal of getting European countries to take greater ownership of their security.
But even at historic low points ― the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the 2013 revelation that the U.S. spied on Merkel ― tensions centered around policy disagreements. The rhetoric now, said Spencer Boyer, a former national intelligence officer for Europe, is “about whether or not Europe can depend on the U.S. as a partner.”
That’s a different sort of problem, says Sheri Berman, a professor at Barnard College. “The fewer allies that we have that we can call upon reflexively, the more difficult world politics is,” she said. “If the Europeans pull together and choose not to cooperate with us on a variety of things ― Iran, the Middle East, international economics ― that makes it harder to get anything done.”
There could be an element of domestic political calculation at play for leaders in Europe. Macron recently prevailed in French elections in which Trump openly rooted for his opponent. And elections are approaching in Germany, where even Merkel’s main rival criticized Trump’s treatment of the chancellor. At the same time, it is a risky move for a head of state to criticize the president of the United States ― and Merkel is notoriously measured in her public remarks.
“For her, this is the equivalent of running around screaming with her hair on fire,” Berman said of Merkel. “She does not blurt things out, she does not make extreme statements, she does not say things that veer from past statements easily.”
For [Merkel], this is the equivalent of running around screaming with her hair on fire … She does not blurt things out, she does not make extreme statements, she does not say things that veer from past statements easily.”
Sheri Berman, professor at Barnard College
European allies have worried since the night of Trump’s election what it would mean for their decades-long relationship with the U.S., given Trump’s campaign rhetoric about cutting back on defense support to allies unless they pay more for protection. During the transition and in the early weeks of the new administration, Trump’s top aides worked to defuse some of the tension by assuring their foreign counterparts that U.S. policy was not going to change much, if at all. Defense Secretary James Mattis has jokingly referred to himself as the “Secretary of Reassurance” in meetings with NATO allies.
For foreign leaders who hoped Trump’s policies as president wouldn’t match his campaign rhetoric, his comments during his trip to Europe came as a disappointment. When they gathered at NATO headquarters in Brussels on Thursday, European leaders expected Trump to reaffirm the idea of collective security ― and maybe even say some kind words about the new memorial to commemorate the victims of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Instead, Trump scolded them for not spending enough money on defense and thereby taking advantage of American taxpayers.
“Twenty-three of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they’re supposed to be paying for their defense,” Trump said Thursday. “This is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States. And many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.”
Trump made no mention of Article 5 of NATO’s charter, the principle that an attack on one member is an attack on all. (Spicer later said that Trump’s commitment to the NATO charter was implicit and that it was “a bit silly” to expect him to state it outright.)
Trump’s next stop did not go much better. In Taormina, Italy, at the G-7 summit of the world’s leading democratically run economic powers, Trump quickly found himself in conflict with the other six. Canada, Great Britain, France, Germany, Japan and Italy all wanted Trump to honor a 2015 global agreement to cut carbon dioxide emissions to combat climate change. Trump declined, saying he would decide later. At the same time, Trump picked a fight with Germany over its trade policy that Trump argued gave German manufacturers an unfair advantage in selling cars in the U.S. (Germany has no specific trade agreement with the United States, and instead follows the same protocols as any other European Union country.)
“The trip was unfortunately a failure by any objective standard,” Boyer said. It “left European allies rattled” and contributed to the emerging “image of the U.S. as an unreliable and unpredictable partner,” Boyer continued.
For now, the Trump administration might believe that Europeans needed to be rattled into taking responsibility for their own defense, even if it compromises their relationship with the U.S. Trump’s foreign policy is predicated on the idea that NATO members need America more than American needs them. But presidents often find that they need allies in times of crisis. The heart of the NATO charter is Article 5, the collective defense provision. But it was never used during the Cold War. It was only invoked for the first time 16 years ago — on September 12, 2001.
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