You’ve probably had your fill of the media coverage, punditry, tweets, and wisecracks surrounding President Trump’s controversial trip to Paris, officially undertaken to honor the Allied soldiers, especially the Americans, who perished in France during World War I. By now, we’re used to the president’s words and deeds prompting eye-rolling and jokes. But on this occasion, as on others, Trump’s behavior reflects deeper and dangerous political trends — ones he both exemplifies and fosters. This makes the Paris drama worth revisiting.
Getting Away From It All
Maybe it wasn’t quite a “blue wave” in the House of Representatives (though it certainly qualified as a “pink wave”). Still, the Democrats did remarkably well in this month’s congressional elections, better than in any midterms since 1974. They seem set to gain between 35 and 40 seats (a few contests remain undecided), including in places Trump carried decisively in 2016.
Of course, a House run by a Democratic majority isn’t good news for Donald Trump — and he knows it. The prospect of subpoenas demanding his tax returns and documents relating to his business deals (among other things) and the possibility of impeachment, even if not conviction in the Senate, are enough to worry a man who spends most of his time thinking about himself.
That’s why the president fired Attorney General Jeff Sessions the minute the election results became clear. He’d never forgiven Sessions for recusing himself from overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation and was happy to replace him with a manifestly unqualified loyalist, Matt Whitaker, a “great guy” he knew well until he didn’t know him at all. Whitaker was a safe choice; his opposition to the Mueller probe was already well established. Trump’s decision to appoint him as acting attorney general may or may not be unconstitutional — leave that to the legal mavens — but the blatantly political and self-interested urge behind it was evident, and not just to liberals.
Given his burden of worries, then, Trump had good reason to regard his Paris trip, planned well in advance, as an opportunity to escape Washington and revel in the pomp and pageantry that mark presidential trips abroad. This one, however, turned out to be anything but a pleasant distraction because, once again, Donald Trump proved to be not only his own best friend, but also his own worst enemy.
A PR Debacle in Paris
No sooner had Air Force One touched down in Paris than the president in his usual fashion made news, drawing attention to his impulsiveness, his vindictiveness, and his contempt for facts. The medium — no surprise here — was his cherished political weapon, Twitter, from which he seems no more capable of separating himself than a melting-down child can from his pacifier or favorite stuffed animal. Trump on Twitter is Trump in the raw: all id, without a scintilla of superego.
On this occasion, even before Air Force One touched down in Paris, he took aim at his host, French President Emmanuel Macron, whom he accused of saying, in a radio interview, that the United States was among the threats against which Europe needed to build a “true European army.” (“President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”) Quelle horreur!
The president’s outburst, in classically Trumpian syntax, triggered a backlash that brings to mind a quip about 1950s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that British historian Andrew Roberts attributes to Winston Churchill: “He’s the only bull I know who takes his china closet with him.”
As it happens, Macron hadn’t painted the United States as an enemy in his actual interview. He did urge Europeans to become more independent militarily and more generally reduce their dependence on Washington. So what? Trump himself had long demanded just that. He did so even before becoming the Republican presidential nominee and has never stopped since. He complains continually that NATO states are ripping off America, devoting less of their gross domestic product to military expenditures than does the United States, while leaving it to Uncle Sam to protect them.
Reading Trump’s fiery tweet you might have believed that Macron had portrayed the U.S. as an actual military threat to Europe on par with the Russians. He did, in fact, mention the United States while discussing the threats anti-democratic movements and radical nationalism posed to the continent. He also claimed that Europe would be “the principal victim” of Trump’s recent unilateral decision to scrap the 1987 Cold War era treaty on Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF). The American president’s characterization of his comments, however, was simply false.
Nor were Macron’s observations about the United States baseless. Trump and National Security Advisor John Bolton despise multilateral institutions, including the European Union (EU). When asked during an interview with CBS Evening News this summer to list America’s “biggest foe,” the president included the EU, citing its trade policies. Ditto multilateralism. In what was widely seen in France as a snub, his schedule didn’t even include Macron’s maiden Paris Peace Forum, created to foster international cooperation on transnational issues.
As for Trump’s defenestration of the INF treaty, it does indeed threaten Europe’s security. That agreement holds the singular distinction of having eliminated an entire category of nuclear arms — about 2,700 missiles — thereby reducing the chances that the two Cold War superpowers would turn Europe into a nuclear battleground. Bolton has long opposed the treaty and his appointment probably sealed its fate. The administration withdrew from the agreement without any serious consultations with European allies, despite its obvious importance to them. Nor did Trump’s foreign policy team make serious efforts to ascertain whether negotiations might address U.S. concerns about Russia’s Novator 9M729, a new missile whose range appears to contravene the treaty’s limits.
Give the president credit for consistency, though. He again demonstrated that he doesn’t require Twitter to make waves (which often leave him drenched). Though he routinely flaunts his patriotism and reverence for the U.S. military, he failed to turn up at the Aisne–Marne American Cemetery, which contains the graves of 2,289 U.S. Marines killed while fighting five German divisions in the brutal June 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood. The White House communications staff chalked up Trump’s absence from this scheduled appearance to rain and the poor visibility that grounded Marine One, the president’s helicopter. But presidential trips always have a Plan B for just such contingencies and Aisne is only about 50 miles from Paris. White House Chief of Staff John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs General Joseph Dunford both managed to make it by car, as did French President Macron and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau even paid homage to the Canadian dead at a burial site slightly more than 100 miles from the French capital, also in the rain.
In a clumsy bid to stem mounting criticism, White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders invoked Trump’s bottomless regard for the convenience of Parisians. The president, she said, was loath to disrupt that city’s traffic flows with a last-minute motorcade. Trump later visited an American military cemetery near the city, but the damage was done. The criticism came fast and furious — and, adding insult to injury, largely via Twitter. Winston Churchill’s grandson called Trump a “pathetic inadequate” for failing to brave rain in order to honor fallen soldiers. Britain’s Defense Minister noted acidly that “thankfully, rain did not prevent our brave soldiers from doing their job,” while the French Army similarly mocked him. Michael Hayden, the former CIA and NSA director under President George W. Bush, reacted to a photo of world leaders walking together without Trump in attendance with this: “WHAT (Actually, what the ****, but you know what I mean.)” And before the trip was over, it would only get worse.
NATO “Diplomacy” à la Trump
Trump’s conduct in Paris was anything but an aberration. Take his attacks on NATO allies for failing to carry more of the burden for Europe’s defense. Now, it’s certainly reasonable to suggest that the current purpose of a Cold War alliance should be rethought. It’s also proper to ask why its European members, whose combined gross domestic product (GDP), according to NATO data, is about $17 trillion (versus $19.5 trillion for the United States), can’t devote more money to their own defense. Of course, the GDP of the putative threat, Russia, is only around $1.5 trillion — less than Canada’s and slightly more than Spain’s. Just four of NATO’s 29 European members have met the two-percent-of-GDP target for military spending that the alliance agreed on years ago, and 15 allocate less than 1.5% (compared to 3.5% for the U.S.).
So, yes, what the wonks call “burden-sharing” should certainly be on the table, but that’s not all that should be there. Trump harps on military spending as a percentage of GDP while slamming NATO allies as slackers and free riders, but he never asks why American defense spending (just shy of $700 billion for 2018) needs to be as large as it is: greater than that of the next 14 countries combined. In other words, is the problem Europe’s military stinginess or America’s global profligacy? Can European military “weaknesses” be attributed solely to insufficient spending? What about a host of other things like rampant duplication in the manufacturing of major armaments? And anyway, how meaningful is a comparison between the military budgets of European states whose armed forces have a largely continental mission and the military spending of a country whose forces are based across the planet and involved in a host of wars and conflicts?
But such matters are of no interest to President Trump. His NATO policy, if it can even be called that, consists largely of impromptu one-liners, insults, threats, false statements, and gross inconsistencies of all kinds. Typically, in 2017, he insisted to the German newspaper Bild that NATO was “obsolete,” only to backtrack a few months later at a news conference with NATO’s secretary general standing beside him. “I said it was obsolete. It’s no longer obsolete,” he claimed, insisting that the alliance hadn’t previously fought terror and now was doing so — a thoroughly fantastical claim.
On other occasions, he’s cast doubt on whether the United States would even defend NATO states under attack, no matter the obligations in Article V of the treaty that created the alliance. This July, he added to the uncertainty by offering a scenario for just such a situation: “So let’s say Montenegro — which joined last year — is attacked. Why should my son go to Montenegro to defend it from attack? Why is that?” (Of course, his children are no more likely to be in the now-all-volunteer U.S. military than he was.)
On November 12th, hard on the heels of his Paris fiasco, he again declared, on Twitter (naturally): “It is time that these very rich countries either pay the United States for its great military protection, or protect themselves… and Trade must be FREE and FAIR!” The United States, he complained, was providing this expensive service “for the great privilege of losing hundreds of billions of dollars with these same countries on trade.” We get nothing, he added, “but Trade Deficits and Losses.” In the weird world of Trumponomics, success in trade apparently requires that the U.S. run a surplus with every country it buys from and sells to. (What if all countries took that position?)
If his true aim was to reform the NATO alliance, the last thing he’d do would be continue tweeting intemperately in the rain. If, however, you don’t care a whit about NATO or the European Union and what you actually want is to dominate the news cycle, while whipping up your base, then that’s exactly what you do. Besides, presenting U.S. support for NATO — for, that is, a set of countries that since 1945 have never said “no” to Washington on more or less anything — as a social service or an act of charity is a bit rich.
Leading NATO is one of the roles that has long enabled American leaders and the Washington foreign policy establishment to brag about being, as former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright famously said, the planet’s “indispensable nation” — allowing American presidents to travel the world preening like emperors while inspecting their provinces. Europe may be the world’s second most important center of economic power, but its dependency on Washington for its security has long ensured that it would play second fiddle to the United States. Moreover, NATO is a central element in the worldwide network of military bases the United States uses for projecting its power far and wide.
As if the backlash from his initial Twitter attack on Macron didn’t faintly satisfy him, the president went at it again as soon as he returned to Washington. He promptly mocked the French president’s proposal (which German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly endorsed) for a European military force with a sneering putdown: “Emmanuel Macron suggests building its own army to protect Europe against the U.S., China, and Russia. But it was Germany in World Wars One & Two — How did that work out for France? They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!” Not only was the jibe tasteless, it was another instance of Trump being fact-free as Macron had never called for a European army to counter a potentially American military strike.
Besides, given Trump’s fulminations about Europeans freeriding at America’s expense, why wasn’t he happy to hear that continent’s leaders talking about becoming more militarily self-sufficient? But perhaps what the president really wants is for Europe to write Uncle Sam yearly checks, while sticking with NATO and remaining a subordinate principality whose leaders he can insult at whim.
Trump and Europe’s “Nationalist” Right
Add to all of this one more factor: President Trump’s clear sympathy for far-right, xenophobic movements (and their admiration for him), especially at a time when such extreme nationalist groups have become the biggest threat to democracy and tolerance within the European Union.
Here again, his incendiary statements have been anything but one-off gaffes; they have been systematic and, as in Paris, ongoing. While still the president-elect, he volunteered that Nigel Farage, the interim leader of the right-wing, nativist UK Independence Party who had voiced support for Trump’s presidential aspirations, would do “a great job” as British ambassador to the United States. Farage pronounced himself “very flattered” and was clearly taken by the idea, but Number 10 Downing Street, not amused, retorted tartly, “There is no vacancy. We have an excellent ambassador to the U.S.” As it happened, Trump got together with Farage before he even held his first official meeting with Prime Minister Theresa May.
And when it came to praising xenophobic European politicians, Farage was just the first European version of a Trumpian-style politician to get in line. There’s Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who’s been busily eroding his country’s democratic institutions, whipping up anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamophobia, closing his border to refugees from war-torn countries, emitting anti-Semitic dog whistles, and posing as the protector of Hungary’s “Christian culture.” He acclaimed Trump’s America First nationalism as a death knell for multilateralism. In turn, Trump and his team have warmed to Orban. This August, Trump’s friend and recently appointed ambassador to Hungary, David Cornstein, gushed that the president admired Orban because the latter was “a very strong leader.” Trump has yet to host Orban at the White House, but the prime minister’s top officials have met with Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Then there’s the Polish government led by that country’s Law and Justice Party (PiS). Its ideology is a kissing cousin’s to Orban’s, so much so that Polish leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has praised the Hungarian prime minister as an ally in resisting the EU’s insistence on democratic governance. No matter: while visiting Poland in July 2017, Trump hailed that PiS-ruled country as a defender of Western values, despite its government’s attacks on the independence of the Polish judiciary and media. This September, one day after the EU referred Poland to the European Court of Justice for politicizing its judicial system, Trump, in a speech to the U.N. General Assembly, again lauded that country for the way its people were defending “their independence, their security, and their sovereignty.”
Also noteworthy is the mutual admiration between Trump and France’s far-right National Front. In February 2017, its leader, Marine Le Pen, who would later run against Macron for the French presidency, exclaimed: “I have only reason to rejoice in Donald Trump’s actions” and Trump in turn hailed her “as the strongest candidate… strongest on borders… and she’s the strongest on what’s been going on in France.” She lost to Macron, but this February, her niece, Marion Maréchal-Le Pen (she later dropped the “Le Pen”), a rising star in the National Front who may become its leader someday, joined President Trump, Vice President Mike Pence, and Nigel Farage in addressing the Conservative Political Action Conference and praised Trump’s America First narrative.
Then there’s Matteo Salvini, Italy’s deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right, immigrant-bashing Northern League. He dreams of a future alliance among Europe’s ultranationalist parties, as does former Trump adviser Steve Bannon. Salvini met Trump in 2016, backed his quest for the presidency, and then released a photograph of both of them smiling in a thumbs-up pose and another of him holding a Trump campaign poster. This September, by then perhaps the most influential member of Italy’s new government, he offered a blanket endorsement of Trump’s policies. Steve Bannon met the Italian leader that month and, while speaking of his plan to form a trans-Europe populist alliance, reported that “we have Salvini on board.”
It’s telling that Trump favors the most anti-democratic European governments and movements, the ones that peddle bigotry, while choosing to pick fights with the leaders of Britain, Germany, and now France. It’s no less revealing that other European far-right figures find him so appealing. None of this, however, should be surprising. The narratives of Europe’s right and the president’s rhetoric overlap, as do the policies they favor.
And it never ends: the vitriolic tweets, the falsehoods, the fondness for far-right groups, the penchant for demeaning allies. It’s easy enough to take all of this as just the White House’s ongoing version of Saturday Night Live. But that would be a mistake. Behind it lurks a future in which nationalism could shatter Europe, proving hazardous for Europeans and Americans alike.
Rajan Menon, a TomDispatch regular, is the Anne and Bernard Spitzer Professor of International Relations at the Powell School, City College of New York, and Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies. He is the author, most recently, of The Conceit of Humanitarian Intervention.