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Trump’s Problem in Europe Isn’t Optics

The president’s latest trip was a disaster—but not because he acted like a boorish bully.

U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I at the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris on Nov. 11. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
U.S. President Donald Trump takes part in a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the armistice ending World War I at the Suresnes American Cemetery outside Paris on Nov. 11. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

In the aftermath of U.S. President Donald Trump’s latest exhibition of diplomatic clumsiness, it might be tempting to conclude that he just doesn’t understand anything about international affairs. On his recent visit to Europe, he managed to convey once again his contempt for America’s European allies, and to demonstrate that he places more value on his own personal comfort than on the sacrifices that U.S. soldiers have made in the past.

The trip itself cost millions of taxpayer dollars, yet Trump chose to skip a key ceremony honoring U.S. war dead at Aisne-Marne American Cemetery because it was raining. The White House offered up a cloud of unconvincing excuses for Trump’s absence, but other world leaders were not deterred by the fear of a few raindrops, and neither were past presidents Obama, Clinton, Bush, or Kennedy back in their day. By choosing to stay warm and dry in his hotel room while other world leaders acknowledged the heroism of those who fought and died for freedom, Trump gave the concept of “American exceptionalism” a whole new meaning.

And then, instead of marching with other European leaders at a ceremony marking the end of World War I, Trump showed up late and on his own and even missed the symbolic tolling of a bell marking the 100th anniversary of the 1918 armistice. (In a revealing coincidence, Vladimir Putin arrived on his own as well.) Overall, Trump seemed intent on proving that while the obligations of being president might force him to go on such trips, he doesn’t have to behave himself while he’s there.

In theory, there’s a difference between being boorish and clueless—and, when it comes to diagnosing international problems, there’s evidence that Trump’s not the latter. For example, Trump is correct to accuse China of engaging in a variety of predatory trade practices and of failing to live up to its World Trade Organization commitments. He is also right when he complains that Europe has neglected its own defenses and relies too much on American protection (though he still seems to think NATO is a club with membership dues). He is hardly the first U.S. official to criticize European defense preparations but being unoriginal doesn’t make it wrong.

Trump is also correct in his belief that Europe, Russia, and the United States would be better off if the divisions that presently divide them could be bridged or at least alleviated. It would be better for Europe if Russia withdrew from Ukraine, stopped trying to intimidate the Baltic states, and stopped murdering former spies in foreign countries. It would be good for Russia if Western sanctions were lifted and it no longer had to worry about open-ended NATO expansion. And it would be good for the United States if Russia could be pulled away from its increasingly close partnership with China. For that matter, Trump wasn’t wrong to see North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile programs as a serious problem that called for creative diplomacy.

The real problem is that Trump has no idea what to do about any of these issues, and he seems incapable of formulating a coherent approach to any of them. To the extent that he does have an actual policy toward Europe, for example, it is the exact opposite of what the United States ought to be doing.

Trump’s broad approach to Europe is one of “divide and rule.” He’s called the European Union a “foe” of the United States, and he has backed a number of the political forces that are now roiling the Continent and threatening the EU’s long-term future. He endorsed Brexit, expressed his support for Marine Le Pen in France, and thinks well of illiberal leaders like Viktor Orban of Hungary and Andrzej Duda of Poland. Why? Because he thinks dividing Europe into contending national states will allow the larger and more powerful United States to bargain with each European state separately rather than face all of them together, and thus secure better deals for itself.

This approach might be termed “Neanderthal realism.” Playing “divide and rule” is a good idea when dealing with real enemies, but it makes no sense to sow division among countries with whom one has generally friendly relations and close economic ties, and when their collective support might be needed in other contexts.

This approach also runs counter to Trump’s stated desire to reduce U.S. security commitments to Europe and to get Europe to take on greater responsibility for its own defense. If you really want the United States to get out of the business of protecting Europe, you should also want Europe to be tranquil, capable, prosperous, and united after the United States withdraws. Why? So that Washington doesn’t have to worry about developments there and can focus its attention on other regions, such as Asia. A Europe roiled by xenophobia, resurgent hyper-nationalism, and persistent internal wrangling wouldn’t be to America’s advantage; it would be just another problem area we’d have to keep an eye on. Nor would a divided Europe be of much use in addressing any of the other problems on America’s foreign-policy agenda.

Why doesn’t Trump see this? Possibly because he is reflexively relying on the same tactics that brought him to the White House. Trump’s political success in the United States rests on his skill at picking fights with others, whether it is rival Republican candidates, Democrats of all kinds, the media, Meryl Streep, Jeff Bezos, or anybody else who disagrees with him. His goal is either to bully opponents into backing down or use the spat to rev up his base. It has worked tolerably well here in the United States, because a lot of Americans are still angry or fearful and Trump is both shameless and adept at fueling those emotions. This same instinct leads him to behave abominably abroad: Insulting British Prime Minister Theresa May and London Mayor Sadiq Khan, deriding Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada as “Very dishonest & weak” or derisively tossing Starburst candies to German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a meeting of G-7 leaders.

The problem, of course, is that the boorish behavior and conflict-stoking policies tend to backfire on the world stage. Trump’s bullying bluster didn’t win big trade concessions from Canada, Mexico, or South Korea; the shiny “new” trade deals Trump negotiated with them were nearly identical to the old arrangements and in some ways inferior to them. And given how Trump has treated America’s allies, why would May, Merkel, Macron, Abe, or Trudeau do him (or the United States) any favors? The declining U.S. image abroad compounds this problem, as foreign leaders know their own popularity will suffer if they help Trump in any way.

Trump’s personal conduct is not even the biggest problem. Arguably, an even bigger issue is the strategic incoherence of his entire transactional approach. His overarching objective is to try to screw the best possible deal out of every interaction, but this approach instead makes it more difficult for the United States to achieve its most important foreign-policy goals. Threatening trade wars with allies in Europe or Canada makes little sense from a purely economic perspective, for example, and it has made it harder for the United States to address the more serious challenge of China’s trade policies. If Trump were as worried about China’s trade infractions as he claims to be, he would have lined up Europe, Japan, and other major economic actors and confronted China with a united front. Similarly, pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and threatening allies with secondary sanctions not only raises doubts about America’s judgment (because the deal was working, and the Europeans know it); it just fuels further resentment at America’s shortsighted bullying.

One of the challenges in dealing with the Trump presidency is seeing beyond the president’s bizarre, deceitful, and frequently alarming antics because they invariably dominate the news cycle, light up social media, and distract us from whatever he did last week. It is increasingly clear that Trump was never the brilliant businessman he claimed to be; he got most of his wealth from his father using various shady tax dodges, and the Trump Organization may have been heavily dependent on illegal activities like money laundering. But Trump was a legitimate reality TV star, and he clearly understands how to manipulate an image, shape perceptions, and command public attention.

The lesson? We should focus less on his personal antics and inadequacies and focus more on his inability to formulate effective policies, even on issues where his instincts are in fact mostly correct. Sadly, the 45th U.S. president possesses a world-class ability to get things wrong, even when he’s right.

About the Author

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt

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