President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip went well enough through its first six days, with some potentially significant successes offsetting a few relatively minor if undeniably embarrassing missteps, but all along even his most ardent well-wishers had to admit to a certain nervousness about how long that would last. On Thursday Trump was in Belgium for a summit of North Atlantic Treaty Organization members, and our worst fears were largely realized.
The date always struck us as fraught with peril, as Trump had won the presidency while railing that NATO was an “obsolete” federation of deadbeat nations free-riding on America’s on America’s gullible generosity, but upon taking office he made a few steps back from that position. He declared that NATO was “no longer obsolete,” seemed unembarrassed to admit that he’d said some things before he knew much about NATO but that he knew better now, and the high-ranking foreign policy officials he’d appointed went to further lengths to reassure our alliance partners, but he’d occasionally lapse back to campaign rhetoric. During a rather awkward meeting in Washington with Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel he handed her a multi-billion dollar invoice for what he thought was owed for American defense spending on behalf of Germany over the past decades, which was more widely reported in the German press than in America’s, and by the time he landed in Belgium there was no guessing what he might have to say.
What he had to say when he took his turn at the podium started well enough, with kinds words for Merkel and a nod to British Prime Minister Theresa May before asking for a moment of silence of the victims of a recent terrorist attack in Britain, and he recalled how NATO had invoked it’s Article Five that an attack on one was attack on all after the terrorist attacks in Washington, D.C., and New York in 2001. After that he mostly went on about how most of the NATO nations are free-riding on the gullible shoulders of American taxpayers and he was there to demand back payments. He noted the opulence of the newly-built NATO headquarters where he was speaking, boasted that he’d promised himself not to ask how much it cost, and seemed to imply it was a nice little building they had there and it would be a shame if anything happened to it.
Trump was undeniably correct in noting that the vast majority of NATO’s members hadn’t spent their promised 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense spending, and his most ardent admirers thus have a plausible argument that he’s staking out an ingeniously outrageous opening bargaining according to the art of the deal. This should prove convincing to that 25 percent or so floor of public support that Trump enjoys no matter what, but it’s a harder sell to the rest of both the left and the right. The same left that wanted to surrender in the Cold War is suddenly talking tough about Russia, while the establishment right that navigated the conflict to a favorable conclusion is fuming that the NATO alliance needs to be dealt with behind the scenes rather than in pubic speeches. That 2 percent of GDP rule was gently pressed behind the scenes even by the administration of President Barack Obama, our NATO partners have been upping the ante ever since, and although thy were coming around at this point it’s hard to see how Trump’s public scolding will urge them along.
Trump’s most ardent admirers will admire his forthright America First stand, but all the international footage shows the heads of state of our NATO allies looking decidedly less enthusiastic about it, and they’re all accountable to British and French and Belgian and other local opinions that have not yet succumbed to Trumpism. The art of the real estate deal and the art of diplomacy are decidedly different, and although we wish him well we can’t help thinking that Trump doesn’t know the difference.The video footage of our NATO allies was far less ebullient than Trump with his Sunni Arab friends from a few days before, and Trump had a few more of the embarrassing missteps on Thursday, including some footage of him seeming to shove his way past the head of state from newly-joined NATO partner Montenegro to get his way to the front of a a photo op, and a couple of awkward handshakes with the French President whose Vichy-derived opponent Trump had more or less endorsed, and all in it all it added up to another bad news cycle.
Meanwhile, back in the states, the news cycle was no kinder. The lead story on most of the network news was that Trump’s son-in-law, the 36-year-old Jared Kushner who has been charged with negotiating Middle East peace being the go-between in our dealings with China and ending America’s opioid crisis and reinvent its federal government, was also the focus of a federal investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Russia was no doubt pleased by Trump putting the squeeze on America’s NATO allies, and those looks on our NATO allies’leaders faces, and how those NATO negotiations are likely to go from here. The Republican congressional candidate who was arrested for assaulting a reporter on election eve wound up winning a special election in Montana, possibly because most of the votes were cast before it happened, but that probably won’t help much in the rest of the world and its opinion polls.
As much as we’re rooting for America and its established principles of foreign policy, we can’t shake a certain nervousness about how Trump is negotiating this darned convoluted art of diplomacy. We’ll continue to regard all those sudden Cold Warriors on the left with suspicion, but neither do we trust that the president or his son-in-law is truly putting America or anybody else first.
— Bud Norman