After the 2016 presidential campaign – when Donald Trump raised questions about whether NATO was obsolete, threatened to tear up free trade agreements and praised dangerous strongmen like Vladimir Putin – his ascension caused considerable fear and consternation among governments and thought leaders across Europe.
As he jets off on his first overseas trip as president, the perception of Trump has taken a twisted turn. “Now they are more appalled than afraid of the man with whom they have no choice but to partner,” reports Politico.
In an in-depth survey of how his administration has changed the perception of America and of the president in Europe, the article says the American democracy is seen as diminished and Trump perceived as a “clown,” a “circus” and a “laughingstock.”
“People are less worried than they were six weeks ago, less afraid,” a senior German government official is quoted by Politico. “Now they see the clownish nature.”
The initial perception of Trump among Europeans was that he was “an ideologue with whom they disagreed rather than what he increasingly appears to be: an ill-prepared newcomer to the world stage, with uninformed views and a largely untested team that will now be sorely tried by a 9-day, 5-stop world tour that would be wildly ambitious even for a seasoned global leader.”
A recent panel discussion among sophisticated political players in Germany dealt mostly with the difficulty of figuring out Trump’s actual policies amid the wild news out of Washington – the claims, charges, allegations, in-fighting and dysfunctional nature of the new administration.
In the age of instant electronic communication, Trump’s travails are followed by many Europeans as avidly as it is by many Americans.
“The dominant reaction to Trump right now is mockery,” said Jacob Heilbrunn, editor of the conservative German journal the National Interest, adding that it is “becoming an international laughingstock.”
Michael Werz, a German expert from the U.S. think tank Center for American Progress, added that he has been struck in Europe by “how rapidly the American brand is depreciating over the last 20 weeks.”
There has been confusing political chaos in America before that has left the rest of the world wondering what will happen, but Trump has taken that to a new level.
“Never has a U.S. president flailed so early in his tenure at a time when he is still such an unknown quantity in the world,” reports Politico. “In Trump’s case, he will arrive in a skeptical Europe with an inexperienced or nonexistent staff appointed to deal with global problems and a record of wildly contradictory statements even on matters of core principle.”
This past Tuesday evening, Germany’s Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, speaking at a conference on U.S.-German relations, spoke first about the legacy of the Marshall Plan and the history of American leadership in Europe. He then delivered a rebuttal to Trump’s “America First” mantra.
“We associate the United States with the idea of freedom and democracy,” said Gabriel, but now there is an erosion of the global order that America created he said, adding: “A recalibration of the world is in full swing.”
Now that Trump is viewed as a childish, temperamental, willful, ill-prepared leader with a short attention span, plans for his visit have been adjusted the way you would child-proof a room before a toddler was let loose.
For instance, the usually long-winded diplomats have been warned to keep their remarks to no more than two minutes in length, which is about how long they think Trump can actually listen.
They are also preparing to give him an unnecessary agreement which he can boast is a victory – an agreement to have Europeans join in a coalition against ISIS, which is already part of what NATO does.
“It’s a phony deliverable to give to Trump,” reports Politico; “a Twitter deliverable,” as a former senior US. official called it.
In private, European officials discuss how to manage their volatile ally, taking into his account what NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called his “12-second attention span.”
An associate of Stoltenberg tells a story about a meeting with Trump in the oval office: “The president seemed unprepared and ill-informed, turning the conversation to North Korea…apparently unaware that NATO is not part of the ongoing North Korea saga.”
“Such anecdotes,” added Politico, “have shaped how Europe’s anxious leaders are preparing for Trump’s trip this week.”