LONDON—The world was waiting for it: a devastating mistake that embarrassed the United States and generated global alarm.
It never quite happened. Instead, thanks to the inherent power of the U.S. president, no small amount of advance planning and staff work, plus a healthy dose of goodwill from U.S. allies, Donald Trump mostly muddled through his first foreign trip in office. It would be too generous to describe his maiden voyage as a success, but it would be unfair to call it a failure. It was … fine.
And so, with the start today of this year’s G-7 summit in Sicily, a collective sigh of relief from America’s friends is now justified. And why not? Considering that this president has no more than a bare-bones grasp of international affairs and diplomacy, muddling through is a decent outcome for the administration. And as an added bonus, this first foreign trip made it possible for the traveling White House to escape for a short while from the debilitating scent of scandal now hovering over the president’s innermost family circle and dominating the political atmosphere in the nation’s capital. The rapid rise and fall of Jared Kushner is a story with a narrative arc that Washington’s chattering critics can’t wait to see in print.
On the other hand, in light of the overwhelming need to slow and ultimately reverse the rising instability and uncertainty in Europe and the Middle East, any other modern-day Democratic or Republican administration would have likely judged this trip a bust, at best a lost opportunity. With all the world’s key leaders assembled and available for working sessions, Team Trump was unable to generate significant progress on any major conflict or challenge in these two critical regions.
In the Middle East, the extensive preparations for the Saudi Arabia stop, plus the excitement among Israeli leaders that a Republican is back in the White House, made possible a relatively smooth public display of friendship and military-to-military partnership. The president’s address to a group of Muslim leaders was unobjectionable and even had a few nice rhetorical touches. But it was nothing new—both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama made similar arguments and exhortations to Muslim leaders on many occasions. In truth, by now all the countries involved have committed to cooperate in nearly every conceivable counterterrorism effort.
The Trump team certainly delivered good theater. But it was still just theater. To advance the cause, President Trump would have had to find a diplomatic way to raise and resolve the issue of past and present financial support from wealthy Saudi citizens to religious charities responsible for the spread of Wahhabism, which has played such a pernicious role in fueling the rise of Islamist terror.
The Saudis showcased an elaborate tribute to the 70-plus-year alliance with the United States and announced new U.S. arms sales and new Saudi investment in the U.S. economy. But this concrete takeaway, much of which is still to be determined, must be weighed against the downside damage to America’s moral standing. For it is hard to imagine any other president accepting such a fawning display of mutual admiration from a regime whose system of government tramples on almost every professed American ideal. Trump could have made a simple statement nudging the Saudis to make progress on democracy and human rights, and his hosts probably wouldn’t have been too offended. The fact that he didn’t will be long remembered.
In Israel, by virtue of not being Barack Obama, Trump was able to bond with a relieved Israeli government. And given the eight years of personal friction between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, an early visit was helpful. But after Trump leaves, many Israelis may start to resent the way they were used to validate Team Trump’s undue optimism about a comprehensive peace. The absurdity of the president’s inexperienced son in law brokering peace between Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and moderate Arab states will sink in over the coming months, damaging trust in U.S. leadership.
Trump claims that Saudi and Israelis for the first time ever share similar concerns about the threat from Iran, and that this shared view can be leveraged to promote peace with the Palestinians. This argument is ridiculous: The Israelis and the Gulf Arabs have agreed on Iran for many years, and there is absolutely no reason to think this fact will alleviate the extreme difficulty of resolving the Palestinian problem with its excruciatingly complex remaining issues, including the status of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Think about it: What concessions are the Israelis and Palestinians willing to make because Saudi Arabia sees Iran as a danger to the region?
President Trump has tried this trick twice before, with China on the Taiwan issue and with NATO on the need to adapt to fight terrorism. In both cases, a naïve president thought he could recast reality to America’s benefit. China’s President Xi Jinping forced a humiliating climbdown before he would even talk to Trump on the phone. NATO leaders, who are more dependent on the United States, have been polite (at least in public). They regard his gimmick as a harmless fiction and have not explicitly called out Team Trump for its phony claims that more money is being contributed and terrorism is being addressed for the first time. My guess is leaders in the Middle East will react more like China than NATO countries.
And then there is the comical gaffe Trump committed on a matter of utmost seriousness and sensitivity, coming after he risked the exposure of Israeli sources and methods in the fight against ISIS—in a meeting with the Russian foreign minister, no less. In Israel, inexplicably, the president inadvertently confirmed that although he didn’t explicitly tell the Russians so last week, it was indeed Israel that was the country providing secret information about ISIS terrorist plotting. Thus, Trump starred in the first fully televised presidential leak of a highly sensitive, “code word” secret. Israeli political leaders covered for him gracefully, but the breach of trust is unlikely to be forgotten by the hard men in Israeli intelligence.
The British were not so forgiving. In Manchester, after U.S. officials leaked British-derived information regarding the name of the suicide bomber and pictures of the explosive device, Prime Minister Theresa May gave Trump an extraordinary dressing-down over the issue, prompting him to order an immediate investigation.
European governments were troubled, too, that President Trump in his public remarks did not specifically affirm America’s commitment to the essential purpose of NATO—Article V of the North Atlantic Treaty, which says that an attack on one country is an attack on all. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has long sought to undermine the Western alliance, must have been pleased. (White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer’s cleanup attempt—he told reporters afterward that Trump was “100 percent” committed to Article V—was unconvincing, because NATO members want to hear these words from the new commander in chief.)
Trump also chose precisely the wrong time to lecture his fellow heads of state about defense spending. They noticed how Trump proudly said he did not go to Saudi Arabia to lecture its leaders on human rights, but he had no problem haranguing America’s closest democratic allies about money during a ceremony intended to reflect the highest purposes and underlying values of the NATO alliance. No amount of solemnity seemed to deter the president from reducing the most profound matters of alliance tragedy and war to an accountant’s recitation. It was the kind of statement a congressional budget hawk might have made, but he would not have been invited to speak at an event for world leaders.
Nor did the president acknowledge that NATO has no dues. It’s true that many NATO countries don’t spend enough on defense, as American officials in both parties have been arguing for years. But NATO members don’t pay dues to an organization, as Trump would have it; the 2 percent of GDP threshold for defense spending is an objective alliance members have agreed to work toward over the next seven years. By contrast, the United States, because of years of Republican hostility, actually owes some $500 million in dues to support the United Nations and U.N. peacekeeping, priorities of supreme importance to Germany, France and other European countries to whom he was addressing his comments on defense spending. That doesn’t change what NATO countries should spend, but the U.S. debt should at least indicate the need for discretion when discussing money matters with friends and allies.
One could go on—White House economic aide Gary Cohn said the president was still “looking at” removing sanctions on Russia, despite the fact that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and others have said that’s off the table; Trump said Germany was “very bad” on trade during a meeting with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker; he pushed aside the prime minister of Montenegro, which has just joined NATO, during a photo op.
The point is that despite the highly staged events designed to pump up Trump’s image, the new administration has done nothing on this trip to restore respect and admiration for U.S. international leadership. For differing reasons, the last 16 years have taken a heavy toll on perceptions of American power, shattering confidence among governments in Europe and the Gulf regarding Washington’s ability to deal with the many genuine threats to international security. Between the overreach and arrogance of the Bush years (e.g. Iraq) and the retrenchment of the Obama years (Syria and Ukraine), no doubt lasting damage has been done. A first opportunity to take the measure of Trump’s leadership potential may cause most world leaders to soon give up hope.
A new president determined to bolster American leadership could have addressed crucial issues of cyber sabotage, Ukraine, refugees, and Russian aggression in Ukraine and beyond as part of the Europe leg of the trip. In the Middle East, the challenges are many, including Syria’s ongoing civil war and Russia’s pernicious role there, containment of Iran’s regional ambitions, and the future of Iraq and Libya when ISIS is defeated. Laying the groundwork to win the support of America’s allies for sensible and serious policies in these areas would be a sign of new resolve. But that road was not taken. Instead, we saw lectures and leaks and tall tales about Middle East peace.