Trump pulls off trifecta of disruption on European trip

Trump pulls off trifecta of disruption on European trip
© Getty Images

Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDemocrats' CNN town halls exposed an extreme agenda Buttigieg says he doubts Sanders can win general election Post-Mueller, Trump has a good story to tell for 2020 MORE did not disappoint. The erstwhile “Leader of the Free World” managed to accomplish the ultimate disruptive trifecta on his European tour. He blasted NATO and the EU — labelling the latter an American foe — and Germany in particular. He undermined British Prime Minister Theresa May even as he dined with her at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Winston Churchill, the embodiment of the Anglo-American “special relationship.” And he whitewashed Russian President Vladimir Putin of all complicity in Moscow’s attempts to distort the 2016 presidential election, its predations in Crimea and Ukraine, its support for Bashar al-Assad’s brutal repression in Syria. Not bad for a long weekend’s work.

There was nothing wrong with Trump’s seeking to improve relations with Russia. As the president rightly asserted, “It is better to take risks for peace.” But that need not have involved the bullying that took place in Brussels and London, and the offensive tweets that he issued throughout his trip.

ADVERTISEMENT
Trump’s attacks on Germany were not without foundation. Europe’s richest country has been notoriously reluctant to spend money on defense, ever since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Warsaw Pact. Moreover, Germany has been complicit in permitting the Iranians to move funds out of German banks prior to the imposition of America’s latest round of financial sanctions on Tehran. Finally, Germany has opted to support the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline in the face of American opposition and has, to all intents and purposes, forced its neighbors to support it as well.

 

If Trump’s treatment of German Chancellor Angela Merkel was offensive, his disparagement of Theresa May in an interview to Britain’s Sun newspaper, which appeared on the street as he dined with the British prime minister, was even worse. In rejecting her approach to Brexit and in complimenting Boris Johnson, her recently departed foreign minister, Trump weakened Britain’s position in negotiating with a tough, virtually implacable European Union. And, in the case of both Merkel and May, his subsequent kind words were nothing less than those that schoolyard bullies use when, having beaten some poor unfortunate, they put their arms around the victim’s shoulder and tell the teacher that they really are good friends.

Trump’s belated praise of both leaders is likely to ring hollow with the publics of the countries they lead. Whatever they may think of May and Merkel, British and German citizens will nevertheless resent Trump’s insulting their elected leaders. The now-famous Trump blimp over London is but a symptom of the widespread hostility to the American president that reigns in Europe today.

Trump’s attacks on the EU are of a piece with his haranguing of Prime Minister May and Chancellor Merkel. They reflect his basic misunderstanding of what the organization is all about. Lacking any knowledge of post-war European history, the American president does not realize that the primary purpose for the creation of the EU’s predecessors, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Economic Community, was to prevent France and Germany from again going to war. However remote that possibility appears to be today, it remains the foundational cornerstone of what has become a Europe-wide organization of peaceful democratic states.

A similar rationale underlay the creation of NATO, together with the need to prevent Soviet domination of Europe. Yet, Trump’s manifest antagonism toward the alliance was hardly different from that he displayed toward the EU. His demand that NATO members fulfill their 2 percent pledge was perfectly legitimate. This pledge already marked a major step down from an earlier pledge to devote 3 percent of their respective gross domestic products (GDP) to defense. It was a pledge that most NATO members never met and that prompted American remonstrations dating as far back as the Mansfield amendments of the late 1960s and early 1970s (which sought to reduce American presence in Europe) through President Obama’s characterization of America’s allies as “free riders.”

Trump went beyond that otherwise reasonable demand, insisting that NATO members up their defense expenditures to 4 percent of GDP. America meets that criterion only if its Veterans Affairs budget is taken into account. Moreover, perhaps as much as half of U.S. military spending addresses threats outside Europe, in East Asia and the greater Middle East. Indeed, analysts for years have insisted the direct American contribution to NATO is most difficult to measure since certain forces — for example, aircraft carriers — may or may not operate in Europe if they are regularly deployed elsewhere in the world.

In any event, for most European NATO allies to double or, in some cases, nearly triple defense spending would wreck their economies and create a level of unrest Europe has not seen in decades. Was Mr. Trump serious? Or was he really trying to undermine the alliance? And does he understand that the alliance has ensured that, should deterrence collapse, a war would be fought in Europe rather than on American soil?

All of the foregoing behavior contrasted sharply with what could only be called a “love fest” with Vladimir Putin. The president had only kind words for his Russian counterpart; he directed his harshest statements in their joint press conference at his domestic opponents, both real and perceived. Putin, meanwhile, displayed a most benign countenance, looking like the KGB cat that swallowed the Western canary.

Trump barely mentioned Crimea, had nary a word otherwise about Ukraine, and hinted broadly at an arrangement with Moscow that would involve both countries protecting Israel’s interests while America withdraws from Syria. Whether Trump agreed privately to cut back on, or terminate, American participation in NATO’s Baltic exercises — a key Russian objective — remains to be seen.

It may be premature to assert that Donald Trump, America’s wrecker in chief, is determined to undermine the Western alliance. Yet his behavior throughout his European visit points in that direction. Should he succeed, he will have accomplished what Putin and his Soviet predecessors could only have hoped for in the wildest of their dreams.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior advisor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was under secretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy under secretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.