WASHINGTON – Germany’s chancellor stood just a few feet away as President Donald Trump said her country’s trade negotiators had done a much better job than their American counterparts, but he would change that.
“Hopefully we can even it out,” Trump said. “We don’t want victory, we want fairness. All I want is fairness.”
Germany has no trade deal with the United States.
And while Trump’s apologists last year explained how Americans needed to take his words seriously but not literally, the rest of the world could be on the verge of taking him neither literally nor seriously ― alarming foreign policy experts on both sides of the Atlantic.
“The fact that our president didn’t know we didn’t have a trade deal with Germany is mind-boggling,” said Yael Eisenstat, a former national security aide to Vice President Joe Biden.
“He doesn’t know anything about American trade. Let alone German trade,” said Thomas Mann, a political scientist with the liberal-leaning Brookings Institution. “His knowledge comes from his own experience in his businesses and a few anecdotes. And then he picks up things from what he sees on cable news.”
Wolfgang Ischinger, a former German ambassador to the United States, in a February opinion article called Trump a “stress test” for Europe. “Trump has made it obvious that established partnerships, alliances, rules and protocols mean little to him,” Ischinger wrote. “In his tweets, he rants about the media, attacks independent judges, targets individuals and companies, and belittles international organizations.”
Douglas Lute, a U.S. ambassador to NATO under former President Barack Obama, said the White House does not seem to appreciate that people outside Trump’s fan base in the United States are also taking note of his words.
“The world is listening. And the world knows the reality. And when they see a president who is not grounded in reality and facts, or is not even bothered by them, that is eroding not only his credibility, but the credibility of the United States.”
“The world is listening. And the world knows the reality,” Lute said. “And when they see a president who is not grounded in reality and facts, or is not even bothered by them, that is eroding not only his credibility, but the credibility of the United States.”
The danger in this is that when the day comes – and Lute believes it’s a matter of “when,” not “if” – that the United States needs its allies in some crisis, they will be unwilling to take the president at his word.
“It’s going to be very hard to regather that credibility when we need it. And we’re going to need it. If something happens, we’re going to need these people,” Lute said. “Donald Trump is going to need Angela Merkel.”
Overseas allies perplexed how a man as unschooled in world affairs as Trump could have ascended to a role traditionally regarded as the leader of the free world should look to the peculiar contours of the 2016 Republican primary campaign.
Its crowded field of candidates and an angry, anti-establishment voting base, perversely, turned Trump’s profound ignorance of both domestic and foreign policy into an asset. As it turned out, a plurality of Republican base voters favored Trump not in spite of his wild claims, but because of them.
Trump made ― and apparently believed ― incorrect assertions about the numbers of undocumented immigrants coming across the southern border, the structure of the NATO alliance and its policies and the significance of trade deficits, among a host of many others.
Stan Collender, a longtime congressional budget committee staffer, said that Trump, unburdened by facts, was able to tell his fans exactly what they wanted to hear. “I don’t think he cares that he doesn’t know how government works,” Collender said. “His supporters think that foreign aid makes up 25 percent of the budget. So let’s cut foreign aid.”
After becoming the GOP presidential nominee, Trump then benefited from the relatively short general election season. The majority of voters only start to pay attention to the candidates in the final weeks and most begin with the basic assumption that a major party nominee is, by dint of that accomplishment, knowledgeable and level-headed enough to serve as president.
Most mainstream Republicans, in fact, saw Trump’s lack of knowledge and lack of interest in acquiring it as a golden opportunity to pass the lower-tax, anti-regulation agenda they had long dreamed with the guarantee of an easy signature from an indifferent president.
It wasn’t until the failed attempt to repeal and replace Obama’s signature health care law this month that many GOP lawmakers realized the consequences of Trump’s approach. Because he displayed only a vague idea of what was in either the Affordable Care Act or the proposed Republican replacement, Trump was unable to provide any real leadership on the issue, beyond demanding that all House Republicans support it for the sake of fulfilling a campaign promise.
Ultimately, though, Trump’s actions or inaction on domestic policy are tempered by Congress and the courts, which subject those policies to reductions in scope or lengthy delays or both. What the president chooses to do in foreign affairs, though, he can often do on his own, with limited congressional oversight.
“Other countries now need dual sets of policies for everything. The policy that you would have if Donald Trump understood things. And the policy that you have to have if Donald Trump gets mad and lashes out at you.”
And that’s what worries foreign policy experts, who add that Trump’s habit of expressing intemperate, often false views in 140-character bites is particularly unhelpful.
“Every day you wake up, have a cup of coffee, or maybe you’re still lying in bed, and get on Twitter and figure out what the fucking crisis of the day is,” said one former U.S. military official, who spoke on the condition his name not be used.
Trump’s Twitter rants and intemperate remarks more generally are creating new problems for traditional American allies, warned Eisenstat, Biden’s former adviser.
“Other countries now need dual sets of policies for everything. The policy that you would have if Donald Trump understood things. And the policy that you have to have if Donald Trump gets mad and lashes out at you,” she said.
Even now, allies are looking past Trump’s rants to see what advisers such as Defense Secretary James Mattis are saying. “In response to his more incendiary statements ― for example about NATO or the European Union ― they appear to be relying on his Cabinet secretaries and departments to keep U.S.-European relations on course,” said Adam Thomson, Britain’s former ambassador to NATO.
Thomson worried that Trump’s credibility could deteriorate even further. “If he doesn’t do more homework, they may start to ignore him ― at their peril,” he said. “Like the media, they’ll learn to take him seriously but not literally.”
A bigger concern, though, might be how the United States’ rivals and enemies respond to improve their own standing.
“Adversaries will have greater opportunities – for driving wedges between the United States and its allies, for amplifying internationally any factual distortions that the U.S. administration perpetrates,” Thomson said. “And perhaps for playing on the president’s unfamiliarity with some issues to steer him in damaging directions or to reach agreements with him over the heads of historical U.S. allies.”
And it’s in that potential muddling of relationships that experts see the greatest danger. There will come a time when Russia or some other nation presents a clear threat to Europe or even the U.S. directly, and Trump is called upon to lead the very nations he has been alienating.
“There will be a crisis at some point. Or there will an international skirmish that actually matters,” Eisenstat said. “We are going to need those allies, whether he thinks we do or not.”