To state the blindingly obvious: President Trump’s European visit did not go well. The reported tidbits of his gruff exchanges with European leaders — combined with images of bemused dignitaries cringing through a series of awkward photo ops — were evidence enough, but the statements that followed the trip confirmed it.
At a Bavarian folk festival on Sunday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel dropped a rhetorical bombshell. Given “what I’ve experienced in recent days,” she said, the days when “we could completely rely on others are over to a certain extent.” Merkel announced it was time for Europeans “to take our fates in our own hands.” And while emphasizing the importance of “friendship” with the United States, she clearly emerged from her various meetings with Trump with a strong conviction: “We have to fight for our own future, as Europeans, for our destiny.” She repeated that line on Tuesday when pressed on the matter by reporters.
Merkel’s remarks are likely an indication, wrote German magazine Der Spiegel, “that she is losing hope that she can ever work constructively together with Trump.” After all, the American president used his pulpit at NATO headquarters to scold his European counterparts about not paying their fair share — but specifically did not reaffirm the United States’ commitment to defend alliance members if attacked.
And at the Group of Seven summit in Sicily over the weekend, Trump balked at reiterating U.S. support for the 2015 Paris climate accord. That led to a sharp rebuke on Monday from German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, who contrasted that impasse with Trump’s warm visit to Saudi Arabia and the $110 billion arms deal inked between the two nations.
“Anyone who accelerates climate change by weakening environmental protection, who sells more weapons in conflict zones and who does not want to politically resolve religious conflicts is putting peace in Europe at risk,” said Gabriel. Trump fired back on Tuesday, lashing out at Germany for its supposed unfair trade policies and insufficient defense spending.
“As a result of this trip, American influence, always exercised in Europe through mutually beneficial trade and military alliances, is at its rockiest in recent memory,” concluded Post columnist Anne Applebaum. “The American-German relationship, the core of the transatlantic alliance for more than 70 years, has just hit a new low.”
The friction is striking, especially when held up against Trump’s more congenial time in Riyadh. “Europeans think they are now being treated worse by Trump than countries like Russia or Saudi Arabia,” said Stephan Bierling, a German expert on transatlantic relations at the University of Regensburg, to my colleague Rick Noack.
The antipathy toward Trump is not restricted to Germany. On Monday, a photo surfaced on official Norwegian Twitter accounts showing the prime ministers of Norway, Iceland, Sweden, Denmark and Finland all clutching a soccer ball. It was interpreted as a jab at Trump’s surreal photo op at the inauguration of a counterterrorism center in Riyadh.
— Steffen (@TVMaury) May 29, 2017
Newly elected French President Emmanuel Macron, meanwhile, made a point of sharing a white-knuckle handshake with Trump and likening the American president to autocratic rulers elsewhere. “Donald Trump, the President of Turkey or the President of Russia are of a mindset of power relations, which doesn’t bother me,” said Macron. “I don’t let anything go. That’s how one makes oneself respected.”
He followed up on Monday with another striking act. While sharing the stage with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris, Macron upbraided the Russian leader for Moscow’s violations of human rights and dissemination of propaganda through state-funded media.
Macron “set a welcome tone for European dealings with Russia, especially in the context of an unreliable U.S. administration and multiplying questions about the dealings of Trump’s entourage with Moscow,” beamed an editorial in Britain’s Guardian newspaper.
The tough talk on Trump is partly meant to appeal to European voters who are also unimpressed by the American president. But, as PostEverything’s Dan Drezner notes, the Trump administration doesn’t seem equipped or even inclined to counteract the negative reactions across the pond. Even the State Department has done little to mollify Merkel.
“What’s truly impressive about [State’s] silence is the apparent lack of comprehension by Trump’s foreign policy team about why Merkel would have fired these shots,” wrote Drezner. “Trump’s ignorant rhetoric and brash demeanor virtually guarantee that elected leaders in large advanced industrialized democracies will benefit from resisting Trump.”
On Tuesday, the White House defended its ties to Berlin with comments that seemed to come out of a parallel universe. Press secretary Sean Spicer said Trump and Merkel had a “fairly unbelievable” relationship and claimed that Merkel’s call for Germany to take on a greater leadership role was a validation of Trump’s “America First” agenda.
But this spin won’t convince most observers. Trump returned home to yet another firestorm over his campaign’s ties to Russia, after reports revealed that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, attempted to set up a covert channel to the Kremlin even before Trump took office. And on Tuesday, in a case of conspicuous coincidence, both Trump and Putin made statements blaming the rolling controversy as the work of bitter Democrats disappointed by last year’s election results.
In other words, despite the anger from America’s traditional allies and many American voters, Trump’s cordial relations with Putin and other autocrats seem to take precedence over concerns about values and shared interests. And the more Spicer and other administration officials attempt to portray this as normal, the more abnormal it seems to be.