Editor’s Note: Nile Gardiner is the director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at The Heritage Foundation and a former aide to Margaret Thatcher. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Nile Gardiner: On this first overseas tour, President Trump certainly made an indelible impression
The President reintroduced a more assertive US, Gardiner writes
President Donald Trump’s first presidential foray onto the international stage should be judged as a success. His visits to Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Vatican, Belgium and Italy were well managed by the White House and effectively advanced some key foreign policy goals for the new administration.
These include rebuilding frayed partnerships in the Middle East and pressuring allies in Europe to invest more in their own defenses; no leader across the Atlantic should be left with any doubt about US expectations of what they need to do to strengthen NATO.
On this first overseas tour, President Trump certainly made an indelible impression. In the Middle East, traditional allies will feel reassured that the United States stands with them, especially in reining in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. In Europe, Trump will probably never be loved, but he is increasingly acknowledged as someone who means business in aggressively advancing US interests, which include strengthening the NATO alliance.
In contrast to his predecessor in the White House, President Trump showed no willingness to atone to other world leaders for his country’s actions, and seemed determined to project strength and resolve at a time when American leadership is increasingly being challenged. This was not the “leading from behind” approach of the Obama era, but a return to a more traditionally assertive US foreign policy based on clear-cut national interests.
President Trump got off to a strong start in Riyadh. After an exceedingly tough week in Washington, he was received like royalty in the capital city of an important US ally that had at times a strained relationship with the Obama administration. His speech to the Arab Islamic American Summit calling on the Muslim world to unite in defeating terrorism struck the right tone as the United States works to solidify the anti-ISIS coalition. In Saudi Arabia, the President came across as a statesman, choosing to jettison some of the sharper rhetoric that peppered his campaign speeches in favor of building bridges with Muslim allies.
Mr. Trump was similarly well received in Israel, whose Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has struck a close relationship with the new US president thus far. The last eight years have been an extraordinarily tense time in terms of US-Israeli relations, but there was little sign of division between Trump and Netanyahu, and both leaders expressed a united message in warning against the prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran.
The European leg of the president’s tour, meanwhile, was always going to be tougher than the Middle Eastern one. When President Trump addressed the leaders of the 28-nation NATO alliance in Brussels, he was stepping into the lion’s den. Many European leaders have been openly critical of the US President, whose suggestion on the campaign trail that NATO had become “obsolete” had also led to widespread consternation across the Atlantic.
Undoubtedly, his remarks at the NATO headquarters could and should have been stronger, with a robust declaration in support of the Article 5 NATO commitment, support for further NATO expansion, and a clear warning to Vladimir Putin’s Russia to keep out of the Baltic states.
But even absent those statements, Donald Trump did successfully hammer home the key message that all 28 members of the alliance must do more to invest in their own defense and contribute more to NATO military missions. Many US officials have expounded on this theme in the past, but until now, no American president had so bluntly made this point directly to the entire alliance.
France’s newly elected president, Emmanuel Macron, visibly smirked during Donald Trump’s remarks, but the force of his message will not have been lost on the wider European continent– much of which for the past 70 years has thrived under the security umbrella provided by the United States.
Donald Trump’s Brussels speech may not have been pretty, but its forceful impact will likely be felt for many years to come. If European countries do end up investing significantly more in their own defenses in the next decade, the Trump administration’s tough love will have reaped dividends.
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Overall, the tour was an emphatic rejection of isolationism, and a reassertion of American leadership. That can only be a good thing for the world.