Trump’s Failure on His First First Foreign Trip
Last week, I predicted that Trump’s first foreign trip “will be justifiably viewed as a failure.” That seemed likely even before Merkel’s comments cast the European leg of Trump’s trip in an even worse light, and now it is clear that there are very few people outside the administration that think the trip was a success. The president was already being judged by a very low standard (“will he cause a diplomatic incident?”), and even by that standard he seems to have fallen short.
There was something for everyone to dislike about Trump’s trip. Trump’s embrace of the Saudis and their allies in Riyadh was an embarrassing spectacle in its own right, as was the priority that he gave to them by making Saudi Arabia his first stop. During that stop, Trump linked the U.S. even more closely with states that are busily destroying Yemen and starving millions of its people with our government’s help, and he deepened U.S. complicity in that disaster by pledging to sell the Saudis more weapons. The stopover in Israel was relatively harmless by comparison, but he did manage to volunteer in public without being asked that Israel was the source of the sensitive information he blurted out during a meeting with Lavrov and Kislyak in the Oval Office. That compounded the earlier blunder he made in sharing the information, and reminded everyone of the episode for no apparent reason. Then in Europe he hectored allied leaders over what they “owed” at a ceremony marking the inauguration of a memorial for the victims of the 9/11 attacks, and didn’t explicitly reaffirm his commitment to upholding Article V. Since the administration has since claimed that omitting the latter doesn’t reflect any change in policy, it was even more inexplicable to leave it out at a summit where everyone was expecting to hear it.
In the end, Trump antagonized the leaders of many of the countries that the U.S. is actually obliged to defend and tightly embraced the despotic client states that the U.S. would do well to be rid of. That is consistent with Trump’s poor alliance management and his misguided enthusiasm for authoritarian and illiberal regimes. This approach simultaneously fails to persuade allies to provide for more of their own security and further entangles us in conflicts in which the U.S. has nothing at stake. Trump returned with little to show for his time abroad and damaged a few important relationships in the process.
Finally, all of Trump’s meetings were with leaders of allied or U.S.-aligned governments, so it is notable how poorly so many of them went. Meetings with leaders from non-aligned and adversarial governments at future summits are not going to be as easy as these should have been, and the chances of damaging relations with non-allies are even greater. If Trump can’t manage relations with close allies well, it seems unlikely that he will fare any better when dealing with states that have even less reason to cooperate with Washington.