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'A dangerous traveling salesman'

May 28, 2017

During his first state trip abroad, US President Trump managed to snub his allies in Europe and let himself be sweet-talked by autocrats. This casts doubts on America's reliability, writes DW's Alexandra von Nahmen.

G7 Gipfeltreffen in Taormina Italien US-Präsident Donald Trump
Image: Reuters/D. Martinez

With his first official overseas trip, US President Donald Trump wanted to show that his "America First" approach is compatible with America's world leadership role. The trip's choreography was cleverly planned and organized weeks in advance: From Riyadh he went directly to Jerusalem - a unique route, as no flights from Saudi Arabia usually go directly to Israel. From the Holy Land it was on to the Vatican, and then the trip was to conclude amongst friends and partners in Brussels and Taormina.

It was a trip that offered the American president the chance to shine on the world stage - as an impressive, inspiring and highly respected statesman. But above all, as a statesman who is pursuing a goal: to safeguard and defend the interests of the American people. This was the narrative behind the trip. Trumps spokespeople and advisers almost outdid each other in superlatives while describing their successes.

Read: On the road with Trump and his entourage

Pretty pictures, but no substance

But the bitter truth is that there is very little substance behind the pretty pictures and big announcements. The White House has neglected to substantiate the president's promises and initiatives with any concrete details. How will the resolution from Riyadh about draining the financial resources of extremists and their supporters in fact be put in place? How concrete is the plan for peace in the Middle East really?

von Nahmen Alexandra Kommentarbild App
DW's Alexandra von Nahmen

But even worse is that the trip again demonstrated how strongly Trump champions a transactional foreign policy - a policy characterized by rivalry between competing interests that need constant renegotiation. This has dangerous consequences: In order to persuade the rulers and governments in the predominantly Muslim countries to join his alliance in fighting extremists, the president basically gave them a free hand in governing their countries. Human rights, women's rights and strengthening civil society hardly played a role at all.

Playing with fire

During his trip, in order to gain support from Saudi Arabia and Israel, Trump again ranted against Iran. His threats are unlikely to mean that the USA will terminate the nuclear agreement with Tehran, which was concluded together with several partners. However, Trump's confrontational rhetoric may lead to a new outbreak of violence in the region between Shiite and Sunni Muslims. The US president is playing with fire, yet it would appear that he doesn't really care about possible consequences.

The USA's European allies watched this spectacle unfold, perplexed and appalled. Their hopes evaporated of being able to win Trump over in private talks about shared values and initiatives agreed to under his predecessor, Barack Obama. In addition, in Brussels the new US president snubbed many NATO partners with his harsh criticism of their defense spending. This took place at a ceremony in which the alliance was supposed to be celebrated as one rooted in the past and looking to the future.

Ad hoc agreements instead of old alliances

The tragedy and danger of Trump's presidency can be seen in the way he basically torpedoed the joint talks in Taormina and remained unrelenting on many questions. "America First" may mean creating ad hoc agreements - and at the same time alienating long-term, faithful partners. America's reliability is at stake. This is the take-out from Trump's first overseas trip.

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Highlights of Trump's first trip abroad

von Nahmen Alexandra Kommentarbild App
Alexandra von Nahmen DW’s Brussels Bureau Chief, focusing on trans-Atlantic relations, security policy, counterterrorism