After Senate confirmation, it looks like the next task for the incoming administration’s secretaries of state and defense, Rex Tillerson and Jim Mattis, is destined to be damage control. That’s because of the fallout here in Europe from President-elect Donald Trump’s unusual commentary on the failings of key world leaders and Western institutions, published Monday in The Times of London and Germany’s Bild newspaper.
Yes, Trump has chosen to start his stewardship of American foreign policy by criticizing America’s most important military alliance, NATO, and taking a cheap shot at one of its most important allies, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who happens to be the most respected leader in Europe by a wide margin.
It is no insight for Trump to point out the obvious: Merkel’s decision to allow hundreds of thousands of desperate refugees to enter Germany has been politically harmful to her government. But that makes it courageous, not shameful. Gloating over the damage to Merkel seems an unfriendly act to a fellow leader, especially when it comes from a country like the United States that is normally proud to be called “a nation of immigrants.”
Only a few weeks ago, many top European officials seemed certain that Trump’s worrisome foreign policy pronouncements were just campaign rhetoric. No longer. They’re coming to realize that Trump’s sustained questioning of the value of NATO, his slashing attack on the European Union and his inexplicable reluctance to stand up to the Kremlin are all too real reflections of Washington’s new outlook.
Once again Trump labeled NATO “obsolete.” This at the very time NATO is deploying new troops and modern conventional arms to Poland in order to reassure alliance members rightly worried about Russian intimidation following Moscow’s decision to invade and occupy neighboring Ukraine.
And once again, Trump bragged that his campaign pronouncements had prompted NATO to shift its focus to terrorism. The truth is that NATO has been fighting terrorist threats from al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan alongside the U.S. for more than 10 years, as well as providing important training and equipment to armies in the Middle East battling the Islamic State. Trump is impervious to these stubborn facts, and equally unaware of the extent to which bragging by an American president is counterproductive. All of which makes it that much harder to imagine him ever becoming a respected leader of NATO and the West, a role every American president since Harry Truman has proudly played.
This gratuitous attack on America’s important friends and allies is precisely what worried all those Republican foreign policy professionals during the campaign and what led so many of them to denounce Trump as unsuited to the role of commander in chief.
For more than 25 years now, the Republican foreign policy establishment has regarded U.S. allies in Europe and Asia as the bedrock of U.S. international power and prestige. Maintaining and strengthening those alliances has therefore been a first principle of American diplomacy and a source of pride for the last three Republican administrations. Indeed, Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Shultz, is usually cited by Republican professionals as the ultimate diplomat precisely because of his skills as a manager of America’s key relationships and alliances around the world. Shultz famously likened diplomats to global “gardeners,” carefully tending to greening fields of healthy alliances and flowering bilateral relationships—a metaphor that holds up well three decades later.
None of this history seems to matter to the president-elect. And while Trump always seems to go out of his way to denounce President George W. Bush’s decision to launch the Iraq war, he seems unaware that one of the most painful lessons of that war directly relates to the arrogant treatment of friends and allies. His comments recall the way top Bush officials used to talk about Europeans and the NATO alliance at the height of their hubris back in 2003. That was when Washington chose to ignore NATO’s remarkable act of solidarity after 9/11, declaring the al Qaeda attacks on the U.S. as an attack on all NATO allies. It was also a time when officials like Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz preferred to see the U.S. go it alone, lest NATO’s command structure slow things down. Later, of course, NATO troops were desperately sought as reinforcements as the war dragged on and on.
Bush officials also threatened to retaliate against countries that opposed Washington’s rush to war in Iraq. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, for example, infamously told friends the White House would “Punish France, ignore Germany and forgive Russia.” Later, of course, as the chaos and civil strife intensified, U.S. military casualties reached tens of thousands, and hundreds of billions of dollars seemed to disappear as Iraq disintegrated, those words were long forgotten.
Fourteen years later, a new American president also wants to forgive the Russians. But this time Russia’s crime is far too big to ignore. There is no principle in international relations more important than opposing large nations invading and occupying their smaller neighbors. For whatever reason, Trump doesn’t understand this critical principle, so he continues to whitewash Vladimir Putin’s government, to the astonishment of every one of America’s allies and especially to Chancellor Merkel, who has shown substantial political courage to lead the European sanctions effort despite the outcry from the German business community.
Which is why the most damaging statement of all is Trump’s perverse pledge to treat Merkel and Putin in much the same way. Before even taking the oath of office, the new president has created a significant diplomatic crisis that will require the best efforts of Tillerson and Mattis to overcome.
If there is any upside to Trump’s insult diplomacy, it is the backlash his deep unpopularity may provoke across Europe. Between his affinity for fringe populist movements and his bizarre attack on Merkel, the Trump effect is off to a rousing start.