Foreign Policy

Gifts and Gaffes on Trump's Excellent Adventure

Well, he didn’t start a war or anything. But he blew a chance to make progress with NATO.

Special relationship.

Photographer: Pool

Overseas trips are great opportunities for U.S. presidents to distinguish themselves -- think John F. Kennedy’s “Ich bin ein Berliner” -- or to do quite the opposite: Remember Ronald Reagan’s unfortunate speech at a German cemetery containing graves of Waffen SS troops? As with anything involving Donald Trump, many were worried about the latter during his nine-day trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Belgium and Italy. So far, he hasn’t gotten ill in the company of any prime ministers.

But beyond the photo-ops and handshakes, what has Trump done to establish himself as a global leader or to improve the standing of the U.S. in the Middle East and Europe? For some answers, I talked with Hal Brands, the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. Brands is also a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, and the author of four books on international policy, most recently “Making the Unipolar Moment: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Rise of the Post-Cold War Order.” Here is an edited transcript of our discussion.

TH: Many Americans were holding their breath about whether Trump would commit any massive faux pas, or maybe over-promise his hosts in an effort to impress them. The consensus seems to be he avoided unforced errors. Do you agree?

HB: He avoided anything truly embarrassing or catastrophic (although I’m sure the Israelis chuckled when Trump arrived in Israel and announced that he had just gotten back from the Middle East). And when you add in all of the strain that the White House was under in the weeks prior to this trip, Trump’s advisers can pat themselves on the back for having pulled off a trip without major incident. We should be clear, though -- one reason the trip came off fairly well is that Trump started by visiting two countries, Israel and Saudi Arabia, that were eager and even desperate to please him. And although Trump’s rather harsh tone and cringe-worthy personal interactions at the NATO summit may not qualify as gaffes -- they simply reflected his true self -- they do mean that Trump undoubtedly missed an opportunity to really establish himself as the leader of the Atlantic alliance.

TH: What did you think about the speech on Islam he delivered in Saudi Arabia? Did you think his accidental (maybe?) use of “Islamic extremism” as opposed to “Islamist” undermined him with his Muslim audience? Or was there even a Muslim audience to begin with?

HB: The speech on Islam and terrorism was, in many ways, fairly reasonable. It properly emphasized the fact that our Arab partners have to take primary responsibility for combating radical ideologies. But Trump’s reputation for Islamophobia is so locked in already that it is hard to say how much good this speech will do him with Muslim populations in the Middle East and beyond -- he has a lot of ground to make up there. And if Trump’s vision of Islamic nations taking the lead in combating terrorism is to be realized, at some point he has to come to grips with the fact that one of our chief allies in that fight -- Saudi Arabia -- is also one of the principal sources of Islamist radicalism. 

TH: In Saudi Arabia, he made official what we already knew: the Obama administration plan to try and become more of an honest broker between Iran and the Arabs is dead. Do you think that going back to pro-Arab advocacy a better way to contain the Iranian threat?

HB: The Trump administration’s policy is based on a reasonable insight -- that the Iranian threat is driving the Sunni Arabs and Israelis to cooperate in ways that would have been inconceivable before this. And there is no doubt that Iran has expanded its influence in the Middle East over the past 15 years, usually in destabilizing and destructive ways. So there is a need to push back -- something that I think a lot of Obama administration veterans would themselves admit. 

But the dangers are twofold. First, there is always the risk of an escalating U.S.-Iran confrontation that could be quite dangerous. We can, certainly, be tougher with Iran, but we have to remember that it has an asymmetry of interest in places like Yemen, Iraq or Syria -- Tehran simply cares about these places more than we do, and is thus presumably willing to go fairly far in defending its interests. Second, there is the danger that the administration could get drawn too deeply into supporting our Sunni Arab partners in schemes that are not particularly well conceived or executed, such as the Saudi and UAE-led war in Yemen.

TH: He didn’t push the Saudis on any sort of democratic or human rights reforms, which is of a piece with of his broader outlook. Do you think that such reforms should be part of a holistic foreign policy, especially given all the arms and business deals that were in the gift basket?

HB: It’s hard to criticize Trump for not pushing outright political liberalization in Saudi Arabia, because few if any U.S. presidents have ever done that successfully. And if you accept the premise that we want greater Saudi cooperation on fighting terrorism and pushing back against Iran, then perhaps governance issues fade into the background.

Yet if this is part of a broader turn away from emphasizing human rights and democracy elsewhere -- and there are some signs that this may be the case, such as Trump’s praise for Rodrigo Duterte and his brutal drug war in the Philippines -- then the U.S. risks losing whatever moral authority and geopolitical benefit it has traditionally won by identifying itself with the cause of freedom in the world. The Trump team gets that there is sometimes a trade-off between values and interests; what they don’t seem to understand is that, in general, promoting U.S. values advances our long-term interests, too. Moreover, at some point Trump has to come to grips with the fact that the Saudi governance and ideological model is itself a root cause of ideological extremism in the Muslim world.

TH: In Israel, he promised to be a peacemaker. But he hasn’t even been clear on whether he supports a two-state solution, moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, ending further Israel settlements, and so on. What concrete steps do you think Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s point man on the process, should take as he follows up?

HB: I think there is little prospect for near-term progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace, simply because for both sides, the pain of taking steps toward a deal is greater than the pain of perpetuating the status quo. I would recommend focusing on an outside-in approach -- promoting greater cooperation between Israel and Sunni Arab states in the region, including the Saudis. That will be valuable in its own right; it may also create a regional climate more conducive to Israeli-Palestinian peace over the longer term. But Trump has to realize that if he moves the U.S. embassy or gives Netanyahu a green light on settlements, it will be more difficult to pursue even the outside-in approach.

TH: Many Europeans are upset that Trump didn’t explicitly endorse NATO’s Article 5, the commitment of all nations to defend any one that is attacked. Instead, he’s hinting about making that contingent on members paying their fair share. Is that a good way to get burden sharing, or does it undermine European security and American authority?

HB: Trump has gotten Europe’s attention at this point -- indeed, he had Europe’s attention several months ago. The trouble with his current approach is that it risks making the Article 5 commitment look more contingent and less sacred, which is the opposite of what one wants in terms of strengthening deterrence against Russia. Trump needs to pivot from calling our allies deadbeats to reiterating U.S. commitment and explaining, constructively, how we can all do more together. He needs to give European leaders a reason to see him as the true leader of the alliance, rather than a dangerous and erratic figure who has to be massaged and managed.

TH: NATO officially declared itself a member of the coalition against Islamic State. This seems meaningless, given that all member states are part of the coalition already. Is there an obvious specific role for NATO in the “global war on terrorism”?

HB: NATO has actually been playing an incredibly important role in the GWOT so far, particularly in Afghanistan, where over 1,000 personnel have given their lives over the past 15 years. French forces also took a leading role in the operation against extremists in Mali in 2013. So the idea that NATO doesn’t do much to counter terrorism has always been more than a little misleading, and so this particular change is really more about style than substance. 

That said, the contributions of most individual NATO countries to the counter-ISIS campaign have been fairly anemic, at least on the military side, something that has been a source of frustration going back to the Obama years. So the Trump team will tout this as a big victory, even if the substantive import is negligible.

TH: If you were Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping, how would his performance on that trip affect your view of Trump as a world leader?

HB: Putin was surely pleased to see Trump once again haranguing the allies and being painfully awkward in his interactions with them -- that’s precisely the sort of internal disruption Putin himself would like to cause in the alliance. But all in all, Putin is also surely disappointed that the administration hasn’t been willing or able to move faster in terms of improving relations with Moscow.

TH: Last, if Trump managed not to screw up, where do you feel he missed an opportunity?

HB: Trump missed two big opportunities at NATO. First, he didn’t roll out his plan for Afghanistan and get allied support for it. This will still happen, most likely, but it will take longer and be harder than if he had used the summit as a forcing function to get the allies to come along with a decision that the U.S. had made and communicated. 

Second, he missed the opportunity to transition from beating the allies over the head on defense spending to explaining, “Here’s what we would like to you do, and here’s what we can all do together.” This was a real oversight, because one piece of good news from Trump’s 2018 budget proposal is that it contains more money for the European Reassurance Initiative -- something that a more adept president might have used as the carrot to go along with the stick.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Tobin Harshaw at

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