Donald Trump's global honeymoon is over, Nic Robertson says
Trump has shown those outside America he is anything but stable or predictable, he says
Editor’s Note: Nic Robertson is CNN’s international diplomatic editor. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
Donald Trump’s global honeymoon is over.
Seven months into his presidency, his foes have him figured out while America’s friends are ducking for cover.
Trump’s off-script, off-color campaign-style rallies that roll back-to-back with the carefully scripted aspirations of his administration suggest to large parts of the world a man who cannot control himself – much less the nation he leads.
NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told CNN last week in a conversation about stability in the face of Russian aggression, that what America’s NATO allies need right now is predictability: “As long we are strong, as long as we are predictable, we can also engage in political dialogue with Russia to try to avoid escalation and to avoid a new Cold War.”
In the aftermath of the awful events in Charlottesville, Virginia, Trump has shown those outside America that he is anything but predictable. His wildly variant public interpretations of violent, anti-Semitic rallies by neo-Nazis and white supremacists and the removal of Confederate statues have caused European leaders to shake their heads in bewilderment.
By one day equating neo-Nazis with civil rights protesters, then days later saying the country has no place for racists before flip-flopping again, he has left international onlookers baffled.
A week later, it seems that neither he nor his White House team has learned anything, as he repeated the same mistakes at a campaign-style rally in Arizona.
This time, he also expressed support for a former local sheriff whose stop and search policies of Latinos has seen him accused of racism – a charge he denies, which seems good enough for Trump – and convicted of criminal contempt.
To outsiders, Trump seems to be shunning the American dream in favor of something far more sinister. Britain’s former ambassador to the United States, Peter Westmacott, tweeted this in response to the Arizona rally: “Shades of 1933 Germany. And an invitation to autocrats w/o America’s checks & balances to play the same game more dangerously. Leadership??”
Trump’s America seems to be getting out of kilter. And while friends such as Westmacott voice their fears, America’s enemies are gearing up to take advantage.
China sent a swift, stinging rebuke this week to Trump’s biggest foreign policy foray since coming to power.
His much-vaunted Afghanistan plan should have marked a moment when the world took Trump seriously.
Alas, the fact it came so soon after the Charlottesville turmoil – and that he followed it 24 hours later with a 77-minute attack on his enemies – somewhat spoiled the moment. No one should be surprised that the wait for Trump to make sense of himself and his America is over.
In his Afghanistan speech, Trump reversed course, saying he’d send more troops to the embattled nation. He also threatened Pakistan, saying it has “much to gain” by supporting the United States and had “much to lose by continuing to harbor criminals and terrorists.”
Before Pakistan had responded, China – uncharacteristically – came to its defense, saying the world needed to do more to recognize that country’s fight against terrorism.
Pakistan, which has long played the United States off against China, seized the moment by doubling down on the Chinese comments and refuting Trump’s claims.
“No country has done more than Pakistan to counter the menace of terrorism. No country in the world has suffered more than Pakistan from the scourge of terrorism.”
China is already at loggerheads with Trump, angered by fears of a trade war and worried by the recent escalation in tensions between the United States and North Korea.
Where months ago, world leaders may have been wary of Trump’s unpredictability and cautious in their response, they are rapidly realizing one of his biggest weaknesses: He appears incapable of focusing on any issue for long enough and is therefore unable to deliver policy in his nation’s best interest.
We could well be entering a free-for-all era of foreign policy. The assumption seems to be that if no one at home will tell the emperor he has no clothes, then why should those looking on from the outside?
Trump’s apparent refusal to base his thinking in reality only becomes more stark to his adversaries the more he speaks.
In Arizona, he told his cheering supporters that Kim Jong Un was listening to him: “I respect the fact that I believe he is starting to respect us. I respect that fact very much. Respect that fact. And maybe – probably not – but maybe something positive can come about.”
He offered no evidence of how he calibrated Kim’s sudden change.
For his part, Kim was only too happy to show he was listening, responding the following day by telling his rocket engineers to increase production of his more stealthy and dangerous solid fuel rockets.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, as we know, looked into Trump’s eyes at the G20 in Germany, listened to his bluster and decided to move on.
Allies, too, have had plenty to consider in recent weeks.
As Trump’s desired plans for health care have failed and he lashes out at allies such as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Sen. John McCain, a Republican war hero, the writing is on the wall for overseas partners who fail to meet his expectations.
No surprise that British Prime Minister Theresa May – who raced to Washington days after Trump’s inauguration to be the first world leader to embrace him, or at least hold hands with him – now keeps her distance.
In Germany, where elections are barely a month away, Chancellor Angela Merkel faces attacks from her main opponent, who claims she is too similar to Trump.
Such is Trump’s global standing that in Europe’s largest economy – the economic engine room of his largest trading bloc and his grandfather’s homeland – he is a pariah, a political liability.
Embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unusually held his tongue over Trump’s moral equivocation and failure to criticize anti-Semitic chants in Charlottesville. But not so Trump’s own ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who told an Israeli reporter that Trump’s response “was not fine.”
Friends, even close ones, are finding it harder to stand with Trump and his vision of America, which raises the question: Where will those friends be when Trump needs them? That question may need answering sooner than even Trump realizes at the United Nations, where he faces Russia’s and China’s increasing pushback over his North Korea policy.
The honeymoon where the world hoped and waited for something better – something stable and predictable – is over.
What greater measure of global evaporation of post-inaugural latitude could there be than a UN panel’s “early warning” to Trump, demanding he “unequivocally and unconditionally” reject discrimination?
How will he respond?
Should he face the United Nations down – as he likes to do with so many other perceived adversaries – and demand it shut down its headquarters in New York?
Nothing would make his real enemies happier. They know Trump can cause chaos, but it seems increasingly to favor their ends if he does.
World leaders have taken their own silent poll on Trump and found him wanting in about every department. A global liability – not a global leader.