As Trump announced plans this week for a July summit with Russian president Vladimir Putin, our Western allies are grumbling that Trump treats them like dirt.
“With friends like these,” wondered European Union president Donald Tusk, “who needs enemies?” The relationship hit another bad patch Friday when Europe slapped duties on $3.4 billion in U.S. goods in response to Trump’s tariffs on European steel and aluminum.
Some predict the beginning of the end of the U.S.-European partnership. “Europe,” declared German Chancellor Angela Merkel last month, “has to take its destiny into its own hands.”
But those who see a serious break in relations overlook the fact that Trump is America’s first businessman-president without political experience, a man who sees the world — even his friends — in transactional terms. What Trump knows about Europe has less to do with its values, history and politics and more to do with the understanding that European countries need America more than he needs them. He believes that — like so many others he’s angered and insulted who need him — the Western allies will ultimately come crawling back.
Trump is America’s first businessman-president, a man who sees the world — even his friends — in transactional terms.
Trump’s cynical view that those he insults come crawling back to him out of need has proved true in past. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Trump insulted not just “Lyin’ Ted” Cruz, but the Texas senator’s wife and father. Cruz is now up for reelection in Texas — and exalting his former tormentor.
This has happened again and again. Trump labeled Senator Lindsay Graham a “total lightweight,” for example, but after Trump took office Graham became his golf buddy. Ben Carson was slammed by Trump as having a “pathological temper” but is now Trump’s secretary of Housing and Urban Development; former GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney was a “fool,” a “stiff” and a “catastrophe” (and had himself labeled Trump a “fraud”) — but then applied (unsuccessfully) to be his secretary of state. Trump has also supported Romney's Senate primary bid.
The exception that proves the rule is the Bush family, which has refused to forgive and forget Trump’s treatment of Jeb. But they are essentially out of national politics and don’t need Trump for anything anyway.
Long before the election, Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen proved just how much abuse people would be willing to take on behalf of Trump. The then-real estate mogul reportedly treated Cohen terribly, yet Cohen kept trying to stay in his boss’s good graces. (Cohen’s loyalty is now being tested as independent prosecutor Robert Mueller reportedly seeks his cooperation.)
This dynamic now continues on the world stage. Trump’s adversarial policies didn’t stop French President Emmanuel Macron from looking like he was thoroughly enjoying himself during a gilded state visit to the White House in May.
Trump was elected to stand up for U.S. manufacturers and to disentangle the United States from globalist policies enshrined in European-backed arrangements like the Paris Climate accords and the Iranian nuclear deal. He emphasized this throughout his campaign — as crowds roared their approval. So he assessed tariffs on EU steel and aluminum, withdrew from the Paris and the Iran agreements, recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and undermined the United Nations.
These things have enraged Europeans, as have stunts like coming late to the recent G-7 meeting in Canada, departing early and then refusing to sign the group’s boiler-plate agreement. While he was there, Trump didn’t bother masking his disdain, even reportedly tossing a couple of Starburst candies in the direction of Germany’s Merkel, saying, “Here, Angela. Don’t say I never give you anything.”
Trump does these things because he believes Europe has no alternative but to eat his Starbursts. What are they going to do, forge an alliance with Moscow to protect themselves from Russia? Become soulmates with an expansionist Chinese dictator?
“Our limitations are, however, rather obvious,” wrote Bruno Tertrais, deputy director of French think tank Foundation for Strategic Research, in the Guardian. “Europe can’t afford a transatlantic trade war.”
Trump does these things because he believes Europe has no alternative but to eat his Starbursts. What are they going to do, forge an alliance with Moscow to protect themselves from Russia?
No matter how angry Europe is at Trump, Brookings Institute visiting fellow James Kirchick wrote in The Washington Post, it can’t decouple itself from the United States: “Set against the rest of the world, Europe is a declining continent in every respect (population, GDP, military spending) and to suggest that it form an independent pole in international affairs — a ‘humanitarian superpower’ that could somehow contend with a rising China, aggressive Russia and restless Middle East and North Africa all on its own, shorn of alliance with the United States — is far-fetched.”
Critics accuse Trump of cuddling up to tyrants instead of democrats. But there might be a method to what critics cite as his madness. Because the dictators who run Russia, China and North Korea are antagonists not reliant on the United States, they might require his flattery more. In contrast, Trump does not conceive of the Europeans as “friends,” but as self-interested actors in a Darwinian world — who will ultimately do what’s best for themselves.
“The world is a vicious and brutal place,” Trump wrote in his 2007 book, “Think Big.” “Even your friends are out to get you: They want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife and they even want your dog. Those are your friends; your enemies are even worse.”
From Trump’s perspective, Europeans are mainly freeloaders taking advantage of the United States through unfair trade practices and paying too little for defense.
So from Trump’s perspective, Europeans are mainly freeloaders taking advantage of the United States through unfair trade practices and paying too little for defense. They need to be treated roughly and manipulated into doing otherwise.
This seems to be something Trump has believed his entire life. In his book “Art of the Deal,” Trump suggested his attitude toward those he works with is carefully modulated. “I was convinced that the only way I’d get the deal done was to shame them into doing it,” he wrote of one deal he was trying to close. “My tone was more hurt than outraged or angry. I can be a screamer when I want to be, but in this case, I felt screaming would only scare them off.”
For the transactional president, insulting and angering Europeans is nothing personal. It’s just business. But, as America chose in 2016, not business as usual.