What the president will do on his first overseas trip is a total enigma
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President Trump embarks on his first overseas trip Friday, with one goal being to bring together the world’s three monotheistic faiths. He travels to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Vatican before more conventional stops in Brussels to attend a NATO meeting and to Sicily for the G7 summit. What can we expect when he gets there, and what should we expect of transatlantic relations going forward?

If only due to heavy repression, the visit to Saudi Arabia is likely to go off without public displays of unhappiness. Meanwhile, the Israelis have generally thought of Trump as an ally, but that was before the president revealed to the Russian foreign minister and the Russian ambassador sensitive intelligence regarding the Islamic State that apparently came from Israel.

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While the Israeli government surely prefers Trump over President Obama, their intelligence services are now going to worry whether the United States can be trusted with the intelligence the Israelis share with it. Moreover, there is the controversy over whether the Western Wall is, or is not, part of Israel. Trump’s national security adviser would not confirm that it is, upsetting some in Israel. Once again, Trump has undermined his own stated message.

 

If protests are likely to be muted in the Middle East, that’s less likely to be the case in Europe. One must recall that, on the campaign trail, Trump called the pontiff “disgraceful” for having questioned his faith in response to his plans for a border wall. Many Catholics, among whom Pope Francis has been extremely popular worldwide, are likely to have been offended. Again, Trump may have stepped on his own message — this time, of “tolerance” — that he wanted to promote on the trip.

The meeting in Brussels may be the one where the president and his team will be least able to avoid unpleasant publicity. It is true that Trump has backed off from his campaign-trail insistence that NATO is “obsolete.” Indeed, he has sent his secretary of defense, General James Mattis, to Europe to reassure them that he believes in the transatlantic alliance — as long as the Europeans pay their fair share. But what Trump represents remains a worrisome puzzle for many Europeans.

They have been rattled by the seeming incoherence of Trump’s positions and his enthusiasm for far-right and dictatorial politicians and policies. His embrace of Vladimir Putin cannot sit well with Europeans who are perfectly aware of Russia’s military incursions in Ukraine and Crimea. Trump’s attraction to violent strongmen such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, combined with his State Department’s disavowal of the traditional American embrace of human rights, has been disconcerting.

Closer to their European home, Trump’s chumminess with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who received a congratulatory phone call from the American president after narrowly winning a referendum solidifying his stranglehold on power, raises eyebrows. Turkey is a NATO ally and perhaps still a would-be European Union member, but the Germans felt they had to squelch Erdoğan’s politicking among Turkish residents in their country because they felt it contradicted fundamental democratic principles. Trump wasn’t bothered by any of that. Erdoğan won the referendum, and that seems to be all that matters.

Then came the French elections and the terrorist attack in the immediate run-up to the first round. Trump tweeted sympathetically that it would have “a big effect” on the election and would help the nationalist and anti-semitic candidate of the National Front, Marine Le Pen. But in the second round, she lost big to Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned on an outspokenly pro-European platform. Suddenly it appeared that, in the aftermath of elections in the Netherlands, Austria, and France in which the far right failed to do as well as was feared, the populist juggernaut with which Trump is associated had been halted.

Early indications are that Macron and long-serving German chancellor Angela Merkel are moving to reduce Germany’s dominance of Europe and resurrect the Franco-German partnership that many regard as crucial to reviving the fortunes of the flagging European Union. As leaders in sustainable energy policies and responses to climate change, they may regard with skepticism an American president who seems stuck in a 1950s mindset regarding energy extraction and the sources of economic growth.

This is not the America that so many Europeans — whether of Merkel’s generation or of Macron’s — admired as a beacon of stability and democracy during the postwar era. Instead, it is a country seemingly adrift, with a leader whose own house is in serious disarray and whose principles are hard to identify. As they wander through the spectacular Greek ruins at Taormina in Sicily, they will surely be wondering how to relate to the enigmatic and enfeebled American president.

 

John Torpey is a professor of sociology and history and director of the Ralph Bunche Institute for International Studies at the Graduate Center of City University of New York.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.