U.S. President Donald Trump’s recent European trip can only be described as disastrous. He publicly confronted his NATO allies, insulted British Prime Minister Theresa May before arriving in her country, called the European Union “a foe” and held a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin that was a low point in U.S. diplomacy — and the repercussions of that encounter continue to reverberate through Washington and allied capitals. The White House is in damage-control mode, but correcting the president’s ill-considered words does not fix the larger problem of his intentions and the direction of U.S. policy.
After the confrontation and breakdown engineered by Trump at the Group of Seven summit in early June, there was great concern about what the president would say and do at the NATO meeting last week. Even before the meeting began, he attacked Germany — and Chancellor Angela Merkel — for being “totally controlled” by Russia because of its purchase of Russian natural gas. He showed up late for official meetings and warned of “grave consequences” if allies do not quickly increase defense spending, adding that the United States could go its own way if his demands are not met.
Yet Trump signed on to an official declaration and at the end of the summit praised the alliance as a “fine-tuned machine.” European leaders pushed back against the president’s claim that he had forced them to increase spending. French President Emmanuel Macron insisted that the alliance commitment to hit spending goals by 2024 remained unchanged. Trump added to the confusion in an interview a few days later when he suggested that the U.S. might not honor the NATO treaty’s Article 5 commitment to defend its allies in the event of a conflict.
From Brussels, he headed to England for an oft-delayed official visit that included a dinner hosted by May, a meeting with the queen, an inspection of the Guard of Honor and a round at his Turnberry golf course. The visit was marred by publication of an interview Trump had given to The Sun newspaper days before he departed in which he criticized May’s Brexit strategy and effusively praised Boris Johnson, the former foreign minister who had resigned the week before over the government’s Brexit strategy and is widely viewed as having his sights on the prime minister’s office.
At a news conference, Trump denied making critical comments of May — The Sun responded by releasing the audio tapes — and added that the two countries have “a higher level of special relationship.” The reality of that relationship is most evidenced by Trump’s reluctance to risk a confrontation with the British public — the prospect of demonstrators lining the roads prompted him to travel the country by helicopter.
Hanging over the entire trip was a meeting with Putin. Trump had hoped to meet the Russian leader since he took office, but the sensitivities of the U.S.-Russia relationship, especially charges that Moscow had interfered in the 2016 presidential election to help Trump, prevented a formal meeting. In Helsinki, the two men first had a two-hour meeting, with no aides or note-takers and then assistants joined them for a longer discussion. It is unclear what they talked about or what commitments were made. Subsequent reports of “verbal agreements” have U.S. officials scrambling to catch up.
Most alarming was the news conference that followed, at which Trump looked defensive and dismissed the conclusion of his intelligence chiefs that Russia interfered in the 2016 vote, saying that he accepted Putin’s denial of interference. That triggered a firestorm of criticism — some used the word “treasonous” to describe the performance — and he tried unsuccessfully to walk back some of the statements upon his return to the U.S.
As the dust settles from Trump’s trip, U.S. allies — and not just those in Europe — must be worried. The U.S. president is openly contemptuous of the relationships of the postwar order, and appears prepared to blow them up in the name of some undefined objective. International diplomacy is, for Trump, an exercise in personal aggrandizement: Success is measured in the attention and credit he gets. He has little appreciation for the importance of treaty obligations or the need to reassure allies of U.S. commitments. Most importantly, he appears oblivious to the realities of domestic politics in other countries, and that his “victories” create a countervailing force even among allies.
This lesson is especially important for Japan. The Japan-U.S. security treaty has been the cornerstone of our bilateral relationship and it has not been questioned even during the most intense moments of trade friction between our two countries. Tokyo must recognize the reality of Trump’s approach to foreign policy and insulate the bilateral relationship and Japan’s security from the vicissitudes he can create.