Trump’s foreign trip has not improved since he arrived in Europe. Once again, he berated NATO allies about what they “owe” (suggesting that he still doesn’t really understand how the alliance works), but this time he did it at a ceremony to dedicate a 9/11 memorial at alliance headquarters. Regardless of the merits of calling on allies to do more for their own security, this was not the right occasion to raise the issue, and the hectoring tone of Trump’s speech could not have been a sharper contrast with the gushing paean to the Saudis and Gulf states that he delivered in Riyadh. Trump even managed to work in another embarrassing endorsement of King Salman as a “wise man” in his Brussels speech. Perhaps Trump would have been kinder to the other NATO members if they had carried out as many war crimes as the Saudis have.
Since members of NATO are our genuine treaty allies and have actually supported the U.S. in our wars, including the war in Afghanistan as part of their alliance obligations, it was churlish at best to dwell on this question publicly at an event that was meant to highlight alliance solidarity and cooperation. Much has been made of Trump’s decision not to make an explicit endorsement of Article V, but to my mind the more egregious error was to spoil a ceremony with a lecture that could have been delivered at a better time in a more appropriate setting. It is legitimate to call on European allies to do more for their own defense, but Trump has probably made many European governments more intransigent on this point because of the way he delivered the message.
Trump also reportedly criticized German trade policies in harsh terms in a meeting with European Commission President Juncker. Depending on the German source, he either described those policies as “very bad” or referred to “the Germans” as such. Whichever version is accurate, I don’t see how that sort of criticism is going to do the U.S. any good in our dealings with the EU.
It is unfortunate that an administration that won’t say anything critical about despotic clients is so ready to share its complaints about our democratic allies. There is nothing wrong with disagreements with other governments, including disagreements in public. Disagreement is inevitable, and interests diverge from time to time. However, to engage in servile bootlicking when dealing with Gulf despots and then turn around and make a point of finding fault with genuine allies shows a very warped set of priorities indeed. It also shows a complete misunderstanding of which relationships are more important to the U.S. Our European allies matter far more than the Saudis et al., and if we are going to flatter and applaud anyone it should be our real allies and not reckless clients that implicate us in their war crimes. Trump has done exactly the opposite on his first foreign trip, and that is just one of several reasons why the trip will be justifiably viewed as a failure.