Trump Leaves Europe with Three Bad Options

This is America’s reality now: an unpredictable scattershot set of policies that weakens its alliances.

US Vice-President Mike Pence gestures as he speaks during a press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 20, 2017. 
US President Donald Trump expects NATO allies to make real progress by the end of this year towards the increased defence spending target agreed by the alliance, his Vice President Mike Pence said on February 20, 2017.  / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND        (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice-President Mike Pence gestures as he speaks during a press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 20, 2017. US President Donald Trump expects NATO allies to make real progress by the end of this year towards the increased defence spending target agreed by the alliance, his Vice President Mike Pence said on February 20, 2017. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)
US Vice-President Mike Pence gestures as he speaks during a press conference after their meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels on February 20, 2017. US President Donald Trump expects NATO allies to make real progress by the end of this year towards the increased defence spending target agreed by the alliance, his Vice President Mike Pence said on February 20, 2017. / AFP / EMMANUEL DUNAND (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)

President Donald Trump disdains the EU, celebrates those who would wreck a united Europe, and would appoint an anti-EU ambassador; Vice President Mike Pence says the president supports a full U.S. partnership with the EU. President Trump considers NATO obsolete; Secretary of Defense James Mattis says if it didn’t exist we would be scrambling to create it. President Trump says we should take Iraq’s oil; Secretary of Defense Mattis assures the government of Iraq the United States will do no such thing. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss cooperation in Syria and beyond; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary Mattis oppose that. The Cabinet would seem to be diametrically opposed to the policies this president advocates.

There is a wonderful scene in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice that captures the current dilemma of America’s allies. Elizabeth Bennett refuses a marriage proposal her mother considers prudent, but her father deems unwise. Her mother begs her father to force his favorite child’s compliance, and the father presents the problem this way: "An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. — Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do."

It encapsulates the challenge presented to America’s allies by Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis in their recent travels to Europe and the Middle East: Either they accept the reassurances of the cabinet and ignore the president of the United States, or they conclude his emissaries cannot deliver the president when policy choices need to be made.

President Donald Trump disdains the EU, celebrates those who would wreck a united Europe, and would appoint an anti-EU ambassador; Vice President Mike Pence says the president supports a full U.S. partnership with the EU. President Trump considers NATO obsolete; Secretary of Defense James Mattis says if it didn’t exist we would be scrambling to create it. President Trump says we should take Iraq’s oil; Secretary of Defense Mattis assures the government of Iraq the United States will do no such thing. President Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin discuss cooperation in Syria and beyond; Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Secretary Mattis oppose that. The Cabinet would seem to be diametrically opposed to the policies this president advocates.

There is a wonderful scene in Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice that captures the current dilemma of America’s allies. Elizabeth Bennett refuses a marriage proposal her mother considers prudent, but her father deems unwise. Her mother begs her father to force his favorite child’s compliance, and the father presents the problem this way: “An unhappy alternative is before you, Elizabeth. From this day you must be a stranger to one of your parents. — Your mother will never see you again if you do not marry Mr. Collins, and I will never see you again if you do.”

It encapsulates the challenge presented to America’s allies by Vice President Pence and Secretary of Defense Mattis in their recent travels to Europe and the Middle East: Either they accept the reassurances of the cabinet and ignore the president of the United States, or they conclude his emissaries cannot deliver the president when policy choices need to be made.

European Council President Donald Tusk described President Trump as a threat to Europe equal in magnitude to Russian aggression and Islamic terrorism. EU President Jean-Claude Juncker encouraged EU states to reject U.S. calls for increased defense spending.

British Prime Minister Theresa May took the other tack, holding hands with the president which ignited a firestorm of domestic criticism and no obvious policy advantage.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel tried a third way, not confronting the president directly but instead emphasizing the value of multilateralism. It’s a reasonable strategy as far as it goes, but difficult to pull off without sounding condescending — which she did, and others taking the approach did even more so. Also, it’s undercut by preemptively and publicly scolding Trump about liberal values and her people telling journalists the contents of phone conversations in which the German chancellor had to school the U.S. president on the Geneva Conventions.

Thus far, only Japanese Prime Minister Shinso Abe seems to have found the key to placatory relations with President Trump. But it is not yet clear that relationship will result in policy successes for Japan. Perhaps the mistake is presuming the dilemma will be resolved — that the administration will make linear progress, its contradictions ironed out as policy choices present themselves and decisions must be made. Perhaps Congressional analysts understand the landscape better; as one concluded, “What’s the reality? All of it is.” This is our reality now: an unpredictable scattershot set of policies that prevent allies from reinforcing U.S. efforts, require constant remediation by Cabinet members of uproars caused by the president’s erratic behavior, and a very high transaction cost for everything the United States wants to do in the world.

Photo credit: EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images

Kori Schake is the director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, a former U.S. government official in foreign and security policy, and the author of America vs the West: Can the Liberal World Order Be Preserved? Twitter: @KoriSchake

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