The Trump presidency has shaken, but not broken the foundations of trans-Atlantic ties. Europe has found a way — for now — to deal with his idiosyncrasies, as Teri Schultz reports from Brussels.
News magazines around the world are marking one year since Donald Trump took office with decidedly unflattering covers. German news magazine Der Spiegel depicts him reversing evolution, shuffling along as the next phase in human form — after a neanderthal.
Time Magazine's cover by the same Cuban immigrant artist shows him in"meltdown" mode and with his "hair on fire," an idiom for being in a constant state of uproar. The New Yorker shows just the top of the presidential coif deep in a "hole" after his disparagement of the majority of immigrant-exporting nations as "s***holes." Men's Fitness even joins in to capitalize on Trump's recent physical, with a spoof headline declaring "Doctors Will Lie for You If You're President."
In reality, however, any European humor about Trump's first year in office is somewhat halfhearted, tinged with genuine concern about how the president's unpredictable politics and Twitter tantrums will translate into policy. He came into office, after all, blasting Brussels as a "hellhole," casting the European Union as an entity the UK was lucky to leave and nixing NATO as a Cold War relic.
Trump came into office suggesting other countries would follow the UK in quitting the European Union.
"In the sense that we haven't yet had a nuclear holocaust I guess we have exceeded the worst expectations," quipped Ian Bond, director of foreign policy for the Center for European Reform, pointing out more seriously that the tension around the Korean peninsula raises valid questions about the possibility of nuclear warfare. "People are still kind of shocked and horrified by what's going on in the US... but we've been having to get on with life and with Brexit and other things," Bond told DW, adding "there is still plenty of grounds for being extremely concerned about the situation."
NATO's tough year
But nowhere was Trump trepidation more pronounced over the last year than at NATO headquarters. Each Trump speech, including the one delivered in Brussels in May 2017 — an event best remembered for the American leader shoving aside his Montenegrin counterpart to stand in front of him — would be awaited with some degree of dread for how he might insult or undermine the alliance, and with the persistent hope that he'd reiterate the precious US commitment to the mutual defense clauseas stipulated in NATO's Article 5.
Defense and security analyst Kristine Berzina of the German Marshall Fund described last year as a "complicated" but "important" year for NATO. "It has not been easy," Berzina told DW, "proving [itself] to a president who's not a traditional foreign policy actor, not a politician, who just really doesn't know anything about what NATO is and its procedures."
Berzina said NATO had weathered it well and raised its own self-esteem, along with its funding, Trump's favorite NATO subject. His "naming and shaming" of allied governments not allocating 2 percent of GDP to their defense budgets was a recurring theme. While many countries had already reversed their declines by the time Trump took office, the constant badgering has likely sped up allies' planned spending increases.
She also pointed out that while the White House rhetoric may have been hostile at times, there's a positive paradox for NATO. "Policies have been steady and strong when it comes to security and defense," Berzina said. "There's more US defense spending for Europe; there's a steady stream of troops on the ground in Europe."
Meanwhile, Roland Freudenstein, deputy director of the Wilfried Martens Center for European Studies, said there have been negative repercussions from Trump's behavior. His ambivalence, if not outright opposition, to the "global liberal order, to free trade and to multilateral institutions has encouraged the enemies of freedom worldwide," Freudenstein told DW, and "certainly emboldened autocrats across the world, not only [Russian President Vladimir] Putin."
But Freudenstein thinks the Europeans may be getting slightly carried away in their antagonism, describing that stance as a potential "distraction from our own shortcomings" such as "measly defense spending, cozying up to autocrats and looking arrogant in our preaching of values to the Americans."
He urged Europeans to look for ways to work with the Trump administration and to view "America through other lenses than the state of permanent hyperventilation which we're in."
Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders has done a lot of thinking about how to best handle the president. He's met him a couple of times and hosted him last May at the NATO heads of state meeting. Reynders told DW he'd come up with the perfect charm offensive for this White House. "There is more job creation in the US due to Belgian companies than job creation in Belgium due to US companies," he explained, saying he'd joked to Trump that Belgium was contributing to "America First."
It's not clear where Belgium would rank for Trump. He nominated an ambassador last fall, then sent her to France instead. No one else has been named as the EU representative either, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed in Brussels.