That Helsinking feeling: Trump's European rampage
The carnage that began in Brussels is widely believed to have left American credibility in tatters
Donald Trump was fired up. When the US president set off for Europe a week ago he was bent on knocking heads with Washington’s allies and finding friendship with Russia.
As he flew homewards after Monday’s summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin, the final repercussions of his diplomatic rampage were not yet clear.
“Trump’s trip to Europe is the single most chaotic and destructive by an American president,” diplomat-turned-professor Nicholas Burns lamented. “American credibility has been diminished,” he warned.
After his activity in Brussels through London to Helsinki, only the weeks and months to come will tell whether Trump only strained or permanently sabotaged trans-Atlantic ties. But there is one immediate conclusion to be drawn: no one, not even Trump’s most senior advisers and cabinet members, carries much weight with the commander in chief.Trump’s approach to any foreign policy challenge will be guided by his longstanding views or his perception of what his nationalist base most desires.
The carnage began with a simple Brussels breakfast. On the schedule of the Nato summit in Brussels, Trump’s breakfast with secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg did not seem like much of a minefield. These events are usually photo opportunities, with perhaps brief remarks to celebrate the enduring trans-Atlantic ties of the world’s most powerful military alliance. But Trump was determined to set the agenda, of the summit and of the news coverage, from the opening minutes.
Member states were braced for Trump to be irascible about defence spending, but not the vitriol with which he launched into them before a visibly uncomfortable Stoltenberg.
As Trump’s advisers averted their gaze, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Germany was declared to be “captive to Russia” because of her increasing reliance on gas supplies.
Stoltenberg stuttered a conciliatory response, celebrating the value of unity, but Trump ploughed on. Later, when he flipped the script and started boasting instead of his “very good relationship” with Merkel, the damage was done.As the second day of the summit dawned, Trump didn’t even have to speak to drain the oxygen from the room; rumours were circulating that he would threaten to quit Nato.
Trump, the self-declared “very stable genius”, stepped in to clear the air, after a fashion, in a wide-ranging news conference. He took questions from all comers for almost an hour, boasting – incorrectly, it later turned out – that the allies had agreed to increase spending more quickly.
“And now we’re very happy and have a very, very powerful, very, very strong Nato, much stronger than it was two days ago,” he said.
European leaders later explained that they had only reaffirmed their existing vow to spend 2% of their respective GDPs on defence by 2024. This had not been enough for Trump the day before, but he left declaring there was only “love” in the room.“I actually told Theresa May how to do it but she didn’t agree, she didn’t listen to me,” Trump told The Sun newspaper before he arrived in London. “She wanted to go a different route. I would actually say that she probably went the opposite way,” he said of the prime minister’s approach to Brexit.
Even some supporters of Trump’s no-nonsense approach to US allies were surprised that he kicked off a visit to Britain by attacking May. The interview was published just as coffee was being served after a dinner hosted by May for Trump at wartime premier Winston Churchill’s home in Blenheim Palace, and it left a bitter taste for the entire visit. May put a brave face on the snub, and later revealed that he had urged her to sue the European Union, a quixotic way to seek a trade deal.Trump alternated denials and defiance, and it was not clear whether he really had meant to weaken May and promote others more amenable to him, like recently departed foreign minister Boris Johnson. But it was clear that he had not impressed his hosts, and that if the vaunted special relationship continues it is no thanks to any alliance management by the president.
Putin on a show
Trump had boasted that his first summit with Russia’s president would be the easiest stage of his trip, despite Washington and Moscow’s historic enmity and current tensions.
In the event, by popular consent, he bungled his joint news conference with Putin and left even reliable cheerleaders on Fox News in Congress sputtering that he had taken the Kremlin chief’s side over US intelligence.
Perhaps at this late stage his unique approach to diplomacy finally failed Trump, when his inability to accept that Moscow may have intervened illicitly to promote his 2016 election cost him dearly.