Positive, negative and idiosyncratic: Trump's trip abroad
On the president’s recent trip abroad, the self-possessed Donald Trump was evident conveying a sense of self-importance and self-righteousness which alienated our European allies. On the contrary, a more thoughtful version of the president endeared himself to some of our Middle Eastern allies by selling United States produced weapons, citing common enemies in reference to Iran and ISIS, and by eluding disruptive aspects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while reassuring the Israelis of the US commitment to them.
At the podiums, Trump for the most part conformed to his prepared speeches thus avoiding extemporaneous flubs. However, the content of those messages, mostly authored by the controversial aide Steve Miller (underling to ultra-right adviser Steve Bannon), raised ire with our NATO allies.
Trump’s histrionics, which included elongated uncomfortable stares, shoving prime ministers aside, long-lasting bear-like handshakes, and sliding forward to be front and center in every photo opportunity, bewildered and bemused foreign leaders.
From Riyadh, Saudi Arabia to the State of Israel to Mahmoud Abbas’ Bethlehem to Vatican City to Brussels, President Trump pleased some, confounded others, and just plain angered many.
Whether or not Donald J. Trump is acting more presidential now than when he was inaugurated in January is an open question. One thing is for sure, the offbeat facets of his 70-year-old personality are unlikely to change. This means that as long as he remains in office, our international meetings and conferences will always retain a speculative atmosphere due to his idiosyncratic ways.
So, what can be considered successes and what should we regard as failures from his journeys abroad. Did the president learn anything and did our country’s standing in the world benefit?
In Saudi Arabia, the president was careful to differentiate between Islamic countries and Islamic Extremists. His speech at the Islamic American Summit walked the tightrope between combating terrorism and besmirching Islam. He stated he sought to create new partnerships to unite against global terrorism. Trump said, “This is not a battle between different faiths, different sects or different civilizations. This is a battle between barbaric criminals who seek to obliterate human life and decent people, all in the name of religion-people that want to protect life and want to protect their religion. This is a battle between good and evil.” He went further, “We are not here to lecture, we are not here to tell other people how to live, what to do, who to be, or how to worship. Instead, we are here to offer partnership, based on mutual interests and values.” The core of that statement is an implicit criticism against former President Obama. The former president when addressing this body years ago incensed many in the Arab community by preaching about human rights and women’s rights. Trump prudently avoided the same mistake. Perhaps as a result of this projected attitude, a memorandum of understanding was agreed upon between the US, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates. Plans for the creation of a center to fight extremism in a unified fashion commenced as well. Trump greased the wheels of all this newfound goodwill by signing a 110 billion dollar sales agreement of armament to the Saudis. In Saudi Arabia, the president did well!
The president then traveled to the State of Israel where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. After making simplistic evaluations of the Israel/Palestine conflict on the campaign trail in which Trump suggested simple deal making would resolve the seven-decade-old dispute, the president was more realistic now. He stated, “I’ve heard it’s one of the toughest deals is the world. But I am sure we’re going to get there eventually.” Trump went to Bethlehem to converse with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. After which Trump exclaimed “Palestinians are ready for peace. Benjamin Netanyahu wants peace.” Trump carefully did not weigh in on Israeli settlements or a Two-State Solution, as he has in the past. Nor, did Trump renew his previous pledge to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Neither did the president comment on the disputed settlements on the West Bank. He was adroit in what he did not mention and set a hopeful tone for the future. The president opened the door for yet another attempt by the US to orchestrate a resolution of the 70-year-old conflict. By renewing the US relationship with Israel, which was frosty under Obama, and by taking a softer more conciliatory tone with both parties, Trump scored a win with this stop on the tour.
The same cannot be said for the president’s stop in Vatican City. The capital of Roman Catholicism seemed to draw out Trump’s defensiveness. Trump appeared as a man being led to the gallows as he stood for photos with the pontiff. Pope Francis delivered a speech last Wednesday that pointedly was critical of Trump’s nationalist agenda. Francis expressed his disdain for Trump’s attitude toward illegal immigrants. Further, the pope insinuated that Trump was deferential to the affluent while dismissive of the impoverished. According to Vatican aides, Trump was upset that in the private meeting with the Pope, the president had to sit in a lone chair in front of the Pope’s desk as if he were applying for a job. In this private audience, the Pope reiterated his concerns about the poor, climate change, and illegal immigrants, much to Trump’s chagrin. Trump stated afterward, “He is something. We’re liking Italy very much.” Francis gave the president copies of his voluminous writings about family, the gospel, and the environment to the president. The president responded: “Well, I’ll be reading them.” If I were Pope Francis I would not expect a book report any time soon.
Similarly, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) meeting in Brussels, Belgium did not go any more smoothly. Trump lectured and admonished other leaders about their shortcomings regarding NATO funding. Famously, Trump has on many occasions called NATO “obsolete.”
Trump turned caustic and condescending, “Many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.” And, “NATO is costing us a fortune, and yes, we’re protecting Europe, but we’re spending a lot of money. Number one, I think the distribution of costs should be changed.”
Also, “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what they should be paying and what they are supposed to be paying.”
Besides this diatribe, Trump would not commit to continuing to support Article 5 of the NATO charter which states aggression against one is an aggression against all members. This article was exercised in 2001 when the US was attacked during 9/11. Needless to say NATO members were aghast at Trump’s remarks and his general attitude toward them. Trump acted like an Elizabethan Schoolmaster rather than a visiting head of state.
Quizzically, Trump’s body language and facial expressions were confounding and inappropriate. He shoved the Prime Minister Markovic of Montenegro aside so he could be first in line entering the new NATO building. He engaged in a firm hand-shaking contest with the French President Macron. He once again refused to touch German Chancellor Angela Merkel and kept inching away from her. When the family photo group leaders shot was being set up, Trump pushed his way to the front and middle of the company. According to the Montenegro Newspaper Vijesti, “It seems Donald Trump did not want anyone overshadows his presence at the summit.” Although the president referred to his trip abroad as “a home run”, that would be a stretch. While he did well in the Middle East and restored some good will there, he further alienated our European allies. His lack of full commitment to NATO is troublesome and begs the question of Russian influence on his opinions and policies.
Did Trump learn from this geopolitical encounter overseas? That answer is difficult to discern. But no matter were he may roam in the future representing our country, he will undoubtedly never escape the foibles of his own personality.