Daniel R. DePetris

How May, Macron and Merkel failed to tame Trump

How May, Macron and Merkel failed to tame Trump
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To conclude that relations between the United States and the Europeans are in quite a chaotic and unpredictable state is like saying German Chancellor Angela Merkel misses the good old days of Barack Obama and John Kerry. It’s so obvious that it doesn’t need repeating.

There are a whole slew of foreign policy and economic issues that have shaken the U.S.-European relationship out of its traditional complacency. Steel and aluminum tariffs, Europe’s anaemic defense spending, the Iran nuclear deal, Brexit, trade imbalances, and Trump’s style of undiplomatic diplomacy have all thrown the continent for a loop. Trump appears to take pleasure in berating America’s European allies and watching them squirm; it was no accident that Theresa May was taken to task by Trump in the Sun for her negotiating tactics with the European Union. There is something remarkably Trumpian about humiliating your host one day and walking down the red carpet with her the next.

Eighteen months after Trump took the oath of office, European leaders still find themselves utterly lost about how to deal with this enigma of an American president. They’ve tried every diplomatic tactic in the book and have come up empty. Merkel has embraced a characteristically pragmatic and cautious strategy, engaging with her American colleague when she can and lecturing him when she must. But this careful two-step has made Merkel Trump’s favourite punching bag. If you don’t believe me, just read the stories about Trump throwing sweets at her during the G-7 summit or his tweets taking pleasure in the fragility of Merkel’s coalition government.

Theresa May has tried to keep Trump close (but not too close), assuming the U.S.-U.K. special relationship is powerful enough to withstand the pokes, jabs, bluster and hot-air Trump is known to dish out. That too hasn’t worked particularly well; as well as handing Jeremy Corbyn a hammer to bludgeon her with as a British poodle a-la Tony Blair, the explosive Sun interview last week suggests that Trump sees May not as someone to be saved, but a wounded political animal to be taken advantage of.  

French president Emmanuel Macron has opted for the bromance approach, showering Trump’s ego with flattery and praise for the purpose of convincing the proud America Firster to become a little more globalist. That too has proved ineffective; Trump’s decision to pull the U.S. out of the Iran nuclear agreement and his subsequent move to reimpose secondary sanctions on all foreign companies and firms doing business with Tehran was the ultimate insult to the Frenchman, who traveled to the White House week’s earlier to beg his American host to give the deal more time. 

With every Trump indignity, Europe’s political establishment becomes ever more outraged that an American president could be so disrespectful and unaware of his surroundings. They ask whether he understands why the post-World War II International order is valuable; whether Trump can be reasoned with on trade; and why Trump can’t seem to accept the decades-long concept of Nato being a force multiplier for American interests. European officials still inexplicably carry on as if Donald Trump is a man who will eventually snap out of a 72-years of obnoxiousness and narcissism and accept conventionality. May, Macron, Merkel, and the rest of Europe’s political establishment see Donald Trump and pray that he comes to his senses and transforms into a Europhile like Madeleine Albright or Richard Holbrooke, spouting platitudes about the indispensability of the transatlantic alliance.

Trump’s persona isn’t the only thing mainstream European politicians don’t understand; his policies are also a mystery to many of them. When Trump tells a major American news network that “the European Union is a foe” of the U.S., Europeans who have been bred into the multilateral structure as a sacrosanct institution beyond reproach get nervous. Many of them are beside themselves that a US President would say such words openly, especially on the eve of his chummy meeting with Vladimir Putin. Whereas Obama was the consummate gentleman who enjoyed glad-handing with European leaders and posing for photos, Trump can barely be convinced by his subordinates to attend these large, boring confabs to begin with. If Trump had his way, he would hit the links rather than listen to mundane presentations by European bureaucrats.

And yet however extroverted Donald Trump is from every other American president, there comes a point in time when foreign secretaries and diplomats across the continent should cease to be amazed or baffled by his behaviour. If a week of Trump-induced chaos doesn’t put that fairytale that this “very stable genius” will convert himself into a Europeanist or an Atlanticist, then Europe only has itself to blame when the next short-term crisis erupts. And if we can say anything about Donald Trump, it is that crisis-making is all part of the game.