Though the media have seized on moments with Macron and his Brussels speech to fixate on tensions and awkwardness, Trump’s primary goal has been achieved.
The idea that Donald Trump set out on his first foreign sojourn with a distinct goal in mind might seem hard to imagine based not only on what has been reported throughout his trip but simply on his record in Washington since becoming President in January. It is no secret that his work has been far from successful at home.
His top agenda items – the ban on visitors from several Muslim-majority countries, and the repeal and eventual replacement of the Affordable Care Act – have both failed, with his “Muslim ban” facing its most recent rebuke this week at the hands of the US Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals.
With Trump off of American soil for more than a week, the assessment of his time spent on the ground in Washington has not improved, of course. But many had hoped that his trip abroad would at least restore some sense of direction for his fledgling Presidency and shore up his international credentials. What has played out has been far from that, thanks in large part to a divergence of views between Trump, the international media, and the governments he has met with.
Essentially, the media, who are not on good terms with the American president, have seized on many an opportunity to label his trip disastrous.
His initial embrace with Emmanuel Macron, dubbed a “white-knuckled handshake”, during a meeting at the US Embassy in Brussels, was transmitted around the globe, and a partisan divide emerged between those who believe the American won and those who believe the Frenchman took the cake.
Regardless of this frenzy, and the similar uproar surrounding Trump’s speech at the new NATO headquarters in Haren, Brussels, critics have ignored the main thrust of Trump’s intentions on his trip.
Trump does not have the same set of priorities that other world leaders have.
When his interests align, he does well with foreign leaders, such as his rendezvous with Prime Minister Theresa May in late January – she needs the US for economic cooperation on a free trade agreement post-Brexit, and he needs her to grant him foreign policy credentials. In most other instances, he has appeared agitated, and this has shown on his trip since he has disagreements with most of the individuals he met over the past week.
In Saudi Arabia, he met 55 Arab leaders and was not afraid to state loudly that they had a responsibility to fight Islamic extremism at home. Beyond agreeing to not refer to terrorism by Muslims as Islamic terrorism and to not attack Saudi Arabia (in favor instead of attacking Iran), Trump has been hesitant to go too far in bending to the wishes of foreign leaders. On the contrary, he has been insistent on stating his demands over the course of his foray abroad and has done much of what he said he would do to his supporters during and after the campaign.
John Boehner, himself not Trump’s biggest fan, seemed to agree that despite troubles at home, Trump has stood up for his base’s goals abroad. He reiterated over and over, from Riyadh to Bethlehem to Brussels, his focus on fighting terrorism and on making others pay their fair share in the global battle.
He called out NATO members for not reaching the stipulated 2% minimum of contributions to the budget, in what may well have been the most awkward moment of his Presidency thus far, and went on to painfully mention that he would not ask his fellow leaders to tell him how much the new headquarters cost – as though he were a father telling his children he did not care how much their present cost, but that they should be very grateful they have it. Likewise, he returned to his domestic immigration theme, but with an international twist, lamenting the increase in immigration in Europe and directly tying it to terrorism.
This was in keeping with the theme of his trip, that of terrorism and whatever leads to it, be it the radicalisation he referred to in Riyadh or infiltration by jihadist groups, as he was alluding to at Haren. No doubt the attack in Manchester helped strengthen Trump’s mood of certitude regarding the urgency of the threat.
Trump’s theme was repeated with Monsieur Macron in the Brussels meeting the two had when he first surprised quite a many people by declaring he had actually been rooting for Marine Le Pen’s victor. He then made sure to mention that one of his priorities for cooperation with Macron would, in fact, be defeating terrorism.
Trump’s goals for the trip appear to be clear, then. He did not intend to soothe relations with his NATO allies, nor did he intend on ending them with the Arab world. He was intent on sending a message clearly to his counterparts in the Arab world that he is focused on terrorism that seems to stem from there – and in Europe, that they should recognize the threat, where it comes from, and that they should follow his lead in fighting it, Trump-style. Whether that message has been received warmly in the capitals of Europe is another matter indeed.