Donald Trump made his first trip outside the United States as president. While much has been made of the performance of Melania Trump as an elegant counterweight to her husband’s boorish behavior - pushing aside the Prime Minister of Montenegro to be in front for a group photo an excellent example - the overall results of the trip can be simply describe in a perceptive cartoon by Patrick Chappatte in The New York Times International Edition of May 31.
Chappatte shows Angela Merkel and European leaders sitting before an overturned table with broken dishes and papers strewn on the floor and a petulant Donald Trump stomping back to the White House. Positively spinning the meetings, Merkel says: “I actually prefer when he focuses on America First.”
Chappatte has captured the essence of Merkel’s encouraging message. If the United States can no longer be counted on as the pillar of European security, as it has since the end of World War II, the European countries will have to take control of guaranteeing their security. Chappatte shows Merkel’s understanding that Trump’s America First position may be a positive impetus for European countries to become more cohesive and independent of the United States.
So much for the positive spin of Trump’s foreign adventure.
In the same edition of the Times, Harvard’s Graham Allison paints a more sombre picture of the inward-turning position of Trump’s America First. Focusing specifically on how Trump should deal with North Korean’s missile program, Allison makes this general historical point: “A Harvard study I led found 16 cases over the past 500 years when a rising power threatened to displace a ruling power. In 12 of them, the outcome was war. Today, as an unstoppable rising China rivals an immovable reigning United States, this dynamic…amplifies risks.”
So while Merkel hopes that European leaders will work together in the absence of U.S. leadership, Allison takes a larger and longer perspective on the global consequences of Trump’s isolationism.
Merkel’s comment was long overdue. European countries have failed to pay their promised dues to NATO. Most importantly, they should be more responsible for their collective security. After the Brexit vote, the European Union and NATO were on shaky ground. Forces pulling apart the alliances were stronger than unifying forces. Trump’s unilateralism has given the EU and NATO a stronger raison d’etre.
But Allison’s point is more pertinent in the long term. Unless Europeans see themselves as more than just a regional grouping, the lack of global U.S. leadership cannot be replaced by a stronger European coherence.
In the final analysis, the negatives far outweigh the positives on Trump’s first foreign foray.