*Emmanuel Dunand | AFP | Getty Images
Last week I raved about President Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on both the A-Z Politics and Unsafe Place podcasts. Then, with my hopes high, President Trump went to Israel. Where he apparently forgot that Israel is in the Middle East. But he readily made amends for such a blunder with a trip to the Western Wall, the holiest site in Judaism (the first sitting POTUS to do so) as well as affirming his support for the state of Israel. Obviously nothing new for a Republican President and a welcome change from the last eight years for conservatives across the United States.
Then, President Trump made his way to Europe. Sure, there were some meme-worthy moments with the Pope at the beginning, but it didn’t seem to be going that poorly. Well, then came the next two stops of the President’s first foreign trip: the NATO and G7 summits.
I’ll sum up President Trump’s appearance at the NATO summit (an organization he once deemed “obsolete”) with a single word: embarrassing. Trump’s skepticism of NATO is well documented and he mostly used the platform of the summit to call for NATO members to uphold their commitment to earmark 2 percent of their GDP to defense spending. Currently, 23 out of 28 NATO members do not uphold that commitment. That’s an admirable goal and has certainly been a hallmark of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy agenda. But, it isn’t as simple as the President makes it out to be. Smaller nations like Luxembourg or the more dovish, like Canada, have relatively low military spending and simply will not be able to commit over 1 percent of their GDP (about $1.5 billion in Canada’s case) to defense spending overnight. And regardless, such a monumental and important request should be done through the proper channels and avenues. Preferably, through independent meetings with foreign heads of state. President Trum instead chose to scold these nations for supposedly not backing the United States in front of a memorial to the September 11th terror attacks — the only time that NATO invoked Article 5 in a collective response. Even Germany who rarely involves themselves into foreign entanglements upheld their troop commitments during the War in Afghanistan as a result of their NATO involvement.
But if I had to pick another word to summarize President Trump’s performance at the NATO summit, it would certainly be “harmful.” It was harmful to the international order that the United States cultivated and has led after World War II and to both the current and future of transatlantic relations and partnerships. I find myself deeply worried that President Trump only possesses a superficial understanding of history, a knowledge that is truly invaluable to understanding the chaotic realm of foreign policy and international relations. Evidence suggests he clearly has no understanding of the importance of this alliance that Americans (especially Republicans) have spent decades developing. The Marshall Plan was created by the United States to curb Stalin-led Soviet influence on the continent. During and after this time NATO stood as the strongest oppositional force to Soviet expansion and stands today to protect much of Eastern Europe, who would otherwise be left with little defense, from the menace that now takes the form of the Russian Federation. Furthermore, NATO collaborates on anti-terror measures and serves as the world’s preeminent military alliance with over 70% of the world’s military expenditures. Not quite what I would deem to be obsolete.
This isn’t even to mention the — again — embarrassment of President Trump’s apparent shove (or at least brushing off) of the Prime Minister of Montenegro, the newest member of NATO and a strategic inclusion to help curb Russian influence on the European continent.
At the time of this column’s publication, President Trump seems likely to keep his promise to withdrawal the United States from the Paris Agreement on climate change. Even if you disagree with the our country’s entrance to the agreement (I personally take issue with some regulatory requirements, though they appear to not be mandatory), or hold out that climate change is a “Chinese hoax” (like President Trump), the strategic ramifications of American withdrawal are far more complex than many may imagine. So much of this column has focused on what is considered hard power: military and economic might. The Paris Agreement falls into what foreign policy wonks would call soft power: a certain charm or attractiveness of your nation that is often ill-defined but important nonetheless to gaining allies, respect and prestige in the world.
Even if withdrawal is done in the name of “America First” — it will very well harm long-term American interests regardless. I worry for an international order where we may find our allies in the world increasingly unwilling to come to our side as a direct result of our refusal to engage in such soft power global initiatives. The only countries to not be a signatory on the Paris Agreement? Syria and Nicaragua. Not quite the crew I would want to associate with. Anyone following the America First doctrine should be equally concerned with the consequences of China taking the lead on such an initiative.
American soft power is not helped by Trump’s proposed budget, which would significantly cut funding to the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a major force for humanitarian aid in the world. Foreign aid can have enormous benefits to a nation’s image and global standing. For example, much of Japan’s rebuilt international reputation has been based on their enormous contributions to humanitarian aid. Also, President George W. Bush is widely respected, even in countries that decried the 2003 invasion of Iraq, for his generous and dedicated contributions to international aid. In fact, one of Bush’s only public political comments in the last year was with regard to American commitment to foreign aid — calling it “essential.”
Chancellor Merkel recently told an audience that Germany may have to rethink its relationship with the United States. President Macron seemed to do the same with his comparison of President Trump to the autocratic Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan after the pair’s white-knuckled handshake.
Quite simply, we may very well be watching a tectonic shift in the history global affairs that will be noted in history and political science textbooks alike. One where the hegemonic position that the United States has enjoyed since the conclusion of the Cold War is in serious jeopardy and perhaps already in apparent decline. Such a break-up of transatlantic relations is exactly what those who seek to do harm to the West and the United States desire. Vladimir Putin will surely rejoice if he is able to exercise more might over the European continent once the full support of the United States to it is tapered. Terrorists may no longer face the threat of a collective response à la Afghanistan as they had before if NATO members become disillusioned with the leadership of the United States. China’s rise to global preeminence will only become accelerated if American relations with our allies sour.
There is so much more to American leadership in the world than dropping bombs, having a strong economy and talking tough. These nuances are easily lost in a reality where the only tool that President Trump seems to have is a hammer. And when the only tool that you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail.