- By Derek CholletDerek Chollet served in the Barack Obama administration for six years in senior positions at the White House, State Department, and Pentagon, most recently as the U.S. assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. Currently the executive vice president at the German Marshall Fund of the United States, his books include The Long Game: How Obama Defied Washington and Redefined America’s Role in the World, America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11 (co-written with James Goldgeier), and The Unquiet American: Richard Holbrooke in the World (co-edited with Samantha Power). A native Nebraskan, he lives in Washington, D.C., with his family. Chollet is a co-editor of Shadow Government.
A president usually never gets a second chance to make a first impression, but President Donald Trump intends to test that proposition over the next few days in Europe.
Trump’s first overseas tour was a mixed bag of style and substance — a symbolically successful visit to Saudi Arabia and summit with Gulf Cooperation Council partners, a positive stop in Israel, yet uncomfortable friction with democratic European allies, several instant meme moments (the glowing orb, the Montenegro shove, and the white-knuckled handshake with French President Emmanuel Macron), and a fumbled policy pronouncement on NATO’s Article 5. For the past several weeks, Trump’s team has been forced to do cleanup, from having to explain that America first does not mean America alone, to reassuring European partners that the United States does indeed stand by its commitments and explaining that Trump did not provide the Saudis and Emiratis with a green light to impose a total embargo on Qatar.
So what can we expect on this trip? Here are four things to look out for.
Poland uses the Saudi playbook. This trip will have a familiar arc: By starting with Poland, Trump is visiting a country that is desperate for U.S. support and determined to make the trip a success. Polish leaders are already boasting that other countries “envy” Trump’s visit to Warsaw, and they will roll out the red carpet, even by busing people into the capital to ensure that the president is met by throngs of cheering crowds (this kind of crowd building is a tactic from Soviet days). There is a lot Trump will like there — Poland punches above its weight on defense, and it too has a nationalist government skeptical of immigrants, in love with coal, unhappy with an independent judiciary, eager to make enemies in the press, and that enjoys antagonizing the European Union. Although Warsaw does not have Riyadh’s ostentatious wealth and gilded palaces, Trump will feel at home.
Trump’s speech in Warsaw should be a rousing reaffirmation of the U.S. commitment to Article 5 — and if he whiffs on this, it will be big news. Also look for new announcements on energy cooperation and security issues, from new weapons sales to a formal roadmap for defense cooperation.
The return of “old Europe” versus “new Europe.” Trump will leave the warm embrace of a country determined to make him happy to face a far more skeptical audience that is willing to stand up to him in Germany. Chancellor Angela Merkel has made no secret of her frustrations with Trump, speaking with surprising candor about policy differences and the fact that Europe may have to rely less on the United States. Trump is deeply unpopular in Germany — if the Germans wanted to bus in cheering crowds, they would have to get folks from Poland.
The policy agenda of the G20 leaders summit is also less congenial for Trump. For example, expect fundamental disputes on trade and a sharp debate on climate change, where the United States finds itself alone — at one point the German government toyed with the idea of having a session on the Paris climate accords in a “19+1” format, but were talked out of it for being too confrontational.
The contrast between the visits to Poland and Germany could spark the reemergence of the “old Europe” versus “new Europe” narrative that soured transatlantic relations over a decade ago. After a rousing stop in Warsaw, it is easy to see the Trump team pushing this line, explaining away its problems with Europe as not part of some broader problem, but an issue specifically with France and Germany. This would be bad for the United States and Europe — it took years to dig out of the previous old/new Europe hole — but watch out for it.
Reset 2.0? Trump’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin will be the main event. On style, look for an Olympian level of macho posturing. Trump and Putin have very similar conceptions of what it means to be a great country, a strong leader, and a man. They both see the world — and every personal interaction — in zero-sum terms. And in their own ways, both are masters of the dark arts of deception, misdirection, and nationalist symbolism. So while we may see the blossoming of an authoritarian bromance, it is just as likely the two repel each other.
On substance, Trump has always said he wants to get along with Putin. That’s reasonable, and actually easy. You just do what Putin wants. So the questions are: What might Putin offers as part of a “deal,” what might he ask for in exchange, and would Trump find that tempting enough to do anything. The obvious card Putin could play would be to offer something on the Islamic State and Syria. But what would he demand in return? Lifting Ukraine-related sanctions? Pulling troops out of the Baltic states — Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania? And would Trump take the bait? Neither leader has an incentive to make a major concession right now, so instead of a diplomatic breakthrough, expect an announcement for follow-up talks by specially designated presidential envoys.
Most important, the world will be watching what, if anything, Trump says to Putin about Russian efforts to undermine democracy, in the United States and around Europe. Or does Trump agree with Putin that these efforts are a hoax? Perhaps more than anything else, how the White House reads out this part of the discussion will shape how this first encounter is perceived.
The wildcards. Presidential trips are always remembered for moments, whether scripted or not (see above: the orb, the shove, and the handshake). Trump’s body language is always revealing, and it will be interesting to see how he handles the mixed company of the G20 summit. Will he seem chummier with his illiberal pals (from China, Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia) than democratic partners?
On substance, it’s likely that the most important news of the trip will have nothing to do with transatlantic relations, Russia, or anything on the G20 agenda, but rather what’s next with North Korea following its successful test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
Finally, it’s a good bet that Trump has a surprise up his sleeve — so don’t be shocked if he ends up visiting Afghanistan or Iraq (or both) during this trip. He has never been to either country, and with critical military decisions looming in both theaters, adding these stops would be smart. For security reasons, presidential visits to such places are never announced in advance, so this could be how Trump fills the mystery gap in his schedule between the stop in Germany and his July 14 visit to Paris for Bastille Day.
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