Europe, the last leg of President Trump’s first foray into international diplomacy, was supposed to be both a learning experience and an exercise in fence-mending with longstanding American allies disconcerted by his campaign mantra of “America First.”
But Trump seems to have been little moved by his conversations with European leaders at NATO headquarters in Brussels and the G-7 summit in Taormina, Sicily — and even at the Vatican, where he had what he called a “fantastic meeting” with Pope Francis. And as for fence-mending, the president did little to dispel concern about his commitment to the NATO alliance — which he once called “obsolete” — or to demonstrate that he is on the same page as America’s European (and Canadian) allies when it comes to immigration or even terrorism. He also refused to join the rest of the G-7 leaders in committing to the Paris agreement on climate change.
The trip probably ranks as a disappointment to European leaders who had hoped that Trump would use his visit to repudiate convincingly some of the extreme positions he adopted during last year’s campaign. These include not only his criticism of NATO but also a seeming rejection of the European Union. (Trump praised the referendum in which voters in the United Kingdom chose to leave the EU.)
European leaders were probably bemused by Trump’s suggestion that the NATO of the future must focus on ‘terrorism and immigration.’
What NATO allies especially were hoping to hear from Trump last week was an explicit endorsement of Article 5 of the treaty that created the alliance in 1949. It says that an armed attack against one NATO state will be considered an attack against all, and that every member “will assist the party or parties so attacked.”
On Thursday Trump had the ideal opportunity to make such a statement when he spoke at the dedication of NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels. Standing near a remnant of the World Trade Center that will serve as a memorial to the victims of 9/11, Trump noted that America’s NATO allies “responded swiftly and decisively, invoking for the first time in its history the Article 5 collective defense commitments.”
But that passing reference to Article 5 fell short of the explicit reaffirmation that many NATO nations — particularly newer members that used to be part of the Soviet bloc — had hoped for. They had to content themselves with a statement by Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to reporters that “of course we support Article 5.”
Instead of emphasizing solidarity with NATO allies, Trump focused in his speech on the failure of many NATO states to spend at least 2% of their Gross Domestic Product on defense, a benchmark reaffirmed by the alliance in 2014. He complained that 23 of the 28 NATO countries are still below the 2% mark and that “this is not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.” The hectoring tone was inappropriate to the occasion, and Trump ignored the increases many countries have made in their defense budgets.
Russia, the subject of so much controversy for Trump at home, also shadowed his European tour. The president acknowledged in his speech at NATO headquarters that the alliance must focus on “threats from Russia.” But Gary Cohn, his chief economic adviser, caused controversy when he seemed to suggest that Trump was reconsidering economic sanctions against the country. (Cohn later said the administration was not planning to lower sanctions and might even toughen them.) After meeting with Trump, Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council and a harsh critic of Vladimir Putin, said he wasn’t “100% sure” that he and Trump had a common opinion about Russia.
Finally, Trump emphasized concerted action against terror, but European leaders were probably bemused by his suggestion that the NATO of the future must focus on “terrorism and immigration.” The link between immigration and terrorism was a staple of Trump campaign rhetoric, but in Europe horrific acts of political violence often have been committed by native-born terrorists, such as the suicide bomber in Manchester, England.
Travel is supposed to be broadening. But Trump returns to the U.S. with what still seems to be a narrow view of America’s responsibilities to its allies and to the environment.
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10:35 a.m. May 27: This editorial was updated to reflect the final G-7 communique.