On the foreign front, Trump’s admirers are trying to make the case that his whirlwind trip to the Middle East, the Vatican, and the G-7 conference were triumphs in the remaking of American foreign policy. They argue that it was a clear example of how his “America First” policy protects the national interest, forces European countries to take on more responsibility for their own defense, and moves the United States away from engaging in the dangerous nation-building of past administrations.
There is, however, major disagreement over how President Trump’s foreign trip was viewed in Western Europe. According to Lt. Gen. McMaster, the national security adviser, and Gary D. Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, it couldn’t have gone better. In an op-ed in The Wall St. Journal, they argued:
This historic trip represented a strategic shift for the United States. America First signals the restoration of American leadership and our government’s traditional role overseas — to use the diplomatic, economic and military resources of the U.S. to enhance American security, promote American prosperity, and extend American influence around the world.
Trump’s trip might have “represented a strategic shift for the United States,” but whether it will lead to the restoration of American leadership and our traditional role oversees is debatable. Instead, Trump seems to have left the impression among our European allies that they might not be able to count on the United States.
Most dangerous are Trump’s moves to attack one of America’s most important allies, Germany. Since Germany has been a bulwark of NATO and the global alliance of Western nations since the Cold War, Trump’s comments about how Germany is “bad” because it exports too many cars to the United States were not only foolish, but wrong. Trump evidently has no awareness that as many German cars are built in the United States as are imported. The president also failed to mention the U.S. commitment to Article 5, the NATO clause allowing for mutual defense. His omission shocked the European representatives.
When Trump met with the Saudis, he failed to even give a perfunctory statement that the U.S. hoped for improvement in its human rights record, emphasizing instead the country’s creation of a new center for fighting terrorism. Trump left any sharp criticisms for Iran, which he condemned for its role in fostering international terrorism. The condemnation came off as hypocritical, since Saudi Arabia is as oppressive a regime as the one in Iran, and it has been responsible, through the funding of Wahhabi mosques around the world, of creating as many jihadists as any other Islamic nation. It was Saudis, as we all know, and not Iranians, who brought down the Twin Towers on 9/11.
Moreover, during the campaign, Trump had tweeted how Hillary’s foundation had taken money from the Saudis even though they funded terrorists; now it was announced that his daughter Ivanka’s foundation to empower women would receive over one million dollars from the Saudi regime. That from a nation whose leaders do not even allow women to drive.
Trump’s behavior ratifies not the McMaster-Cohn position, but the conclusion reached by journalist David Frum, whose searing critique should be read in its entirety:
Under the slogan of restoring American greatness, they [the Trump administration] are destroying it. Promising readers that they want to “restore confidence in American leadership,” they instead threaten and bluster in ways that may persuade partners that America has ceased to be the leader they once respected — but an unpredictable and dangerous force in world affairs, itself to be contained and deterred by new coalitions of ex-friends.
Anne Applebaum, one of the smartest conservative commentators on foreign policy, essentially reaches the same conclusion:
As a result of this trip, American influence, always exercised in Europe through mutually beneficial trade and military alliances, is at its rockiest in recent memory. The American-German relationship, the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years, has just hit a new low: On Sunday, the German chancellor told a sympathetic crowd that Germany could no longer depend on America, given what she had “experienced in the last few days.” The Russian government, which has long sought to expel the United States from the continent, is overjoyed: On Russian television, Trump was said to have turned NATO into a “house of cards.”
According to the law of unintended consequences, Trump’s feud with Angela Merkel looks like it will now help her and her party win the federal elections coming in September. Trump is not very popular with Germans, and at a time when all of Merkel’s political opponents also criticize Trump, she appears to be prescient.
If NATO and EU members believe that the doctrine of America First means a strategic shift away from them, they will be more open to form more beneficial relationships with other countries. Merkel, for example, wants to expand trade with India. A few days ago, she met with a large delegation where her spokesman called Prime Minister Narendra Modi a “reliable partner.”
China is also happy to fill the void, envisioning the day when the EU and the U.S. drift apart and it will be able to form closer ties with the former. As the Trump administration rejects globalism and moves to protectionism and abandons free trade, China is positioning itself as its champion.
Russia is also pleased with the growing tensions between the U.S. and Europe. Even before Trump’s trip they were exerting their influence in Italy to sway the Italian elections in favor of pro-Russian opposition parties, like the Five Star Movement. It has called for a referendum on Italy’s inclusion in the Eurozone, an end on sanctions on Russia, and a shift away from the United States towards Russia. To this end, Sergei Razov, the Russian ambassador to Italy, has been busy forming relationships with Italian politicians. Trump, in sharp contrast, has not yet appointed an American ambassador. And, despite Vladimir Putin’s open endorsement and funding of Marine Le Pen, she lost the French election to the centrist technocrat Macron. Trump’s allies, it appears, are not so popular in western Europe.
While a strategic shift for the United States in the Middle East may well have positive results, Trump’s apparent move away from our traditional European allies might prove not to be so wise. It certainly does not look like the restoration of American leadership.