U.S. President Donald Trump has completed his first overseas trip, a nine-day tour that took him to the Mideast and to Europe. He and his team consider the visit a success. He stuck closely to his script and while there were some awkward moments, there was nothing to overshadow the messages that he sought to deliver. The problem for others, including U.S. allies and partners like Japan, is the content of those messages. Trump’s comments on this tour raise questions anew about his administration’s commitment to core elements of the Western foreign policy consensus.
In Saudi Arabia, for example, speaking to a large assembly of Sunni leaders, Trump highlighted the challenge posed by Islamic extremism and the Islamic State group. He backed away from campaign rhetoric that characterized Islam as a faith that hates the West; instead he demonized Iran for supporting terrorism and promoting regional instability. That was music to the ears of the Sunni leaders who consider Tehran to be a political and religious challenge to their status, but he failed to acknowledge the role of Wahhabism (promoted by Saudi Arabia) in fomenting the same unrest or Saudi Arabia’s role in backing civil war in Yemen.
Denunciations of Iran also rang hollow as they were made to a group of autocratic leaders with no democratic pretenses at a moment when Iran was holding elections. Trump pointedly noted that his administration would not lecture partners of the United States about how to run their countries, a repudiation of the long-standing U.S. commitment to the promotion of democracy and human rights. That silence assumed ominous significance days after the speech when Bahrain cracked down on dissidents in a raid that resulted in five deaths and the arrests of hundreds of people.
After stops in Israel and the Vatican, both of which went largely as planned, Trump headed to Brussels and fireworks — and not all of them were celebratory. In his speech at the new NATO headquarters, Trump lambasted his alliance partners for failing to pay their share of defense costs, and suggesting — in remarks that show no understanding of how NATO works — that they owe “massive amounts” of money to the U.S. as a result. Three years ago, NATO member states agreed to commit at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product to defense spending; many have done so and most are on track to reach that target. The idea that a shortfall comes out of the U.S. budget is woefully mistaken. The readiness to lecture allies also seems to be at odds — for many reasons — with the laissez-faire approach he articulated to Riyadh.
Perhaps more worrisome than those misguided remarks are what Trump did not say. He made no mention of Russia, which is a dark and growing concern for European governments. NATO members also read newspapers and they are well aware of the controversy swirling around the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia; his failure to address Moscow’s behavior raised eyebrows.
What rankled NATO governments most, however, was Trump’s refusal to explicitly commit to NATO’s article 5 guarantee of mutual defense. Trump is the first U.S. president to not make that pledge. Candidate Trump declared NATO “obsolete” (a position he has recanted). He has suggested that the U.S. readiness to honor its alliance obligations will depend on NATO partners meeting those budget commitments.
That silence was especially galling when his speech took place at “The 9/11 and Article 5 Memorial,” which refers to the only time Article 5 has ever been invoked — to back the U.S. in its hour of need. The deaths of more that 1,000 military personnel from NATO allies in the U.S.-led war in Afghanistan compounds European anger.
Members of the Trump entourage say that backdrop made explicit reference unnecessary, but that is hard to square with comments before the trip from White House officials that the commitment would be made. Japanese know well the value of such commitments. His refusal to say those simple words is creating unease, as former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt noted in a commentary after the speech, explaining that “European leaders take the core functions of NATO seriously. Perhaps more seriously than Trump does.”
The final issue is climate change, a topic taken up at the Group of Seven summit in Sicily. Trump is the only G-7 leader who has not endorsed the Paris Agreement to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. At the meeting, the six other leaders affirmed their “commitment and our determination” to the accord, while the U.S. would only commit to “a period of reflection.” Top advisers say the president is considering his options, and “his views are evolving.” When speaking to U.S. audiences, however, Trump’s skepticism seems clear. It appears as though the world must look elsewhere for leadership on this critical issue — we hope that this is the only issue in which such a vacuum will emerge.