Donald Trump’s Ignorance Extends to Foreign Affairs. That’s A Big Problem.
The president’s meeting with Germany’s Angela Merkel offers a window into the foreign policy perils of a fact-free presidency.
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.”
If Angela Merkel appeared confused, she had good reason to be. A line that had worked brilliantly for Trump on the campaign trail was not working so well on the world stage.
Germany has no trade deal with the United States.
Nor does it owe the U.S. “vast sums of money,” as Trump reportedly insisted during his March 17 meeting with Merkel and then claimed in a tweet the following day.
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.”
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 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 re-gather 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.”
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.
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.
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.”
“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.”
By S.V. Date Senior White House Correspondent, The Huffington Post
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