Editor’s Note: Aaron David Miller is a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and author of “The End of Greatness: Why America Can’t Have (and Doesn’t Want) Another Great President.” Miller was a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
Maybe even Donald Trump has had enough.
After a day and a half of fun and games at NATO’S 70th anniversary gathering where he clashed with French President Emmanuel Macron and appeared to be mocked by Canada’s Justin Trudeau and other NATO leaders in an embarrassing video, the President decided to cancel one of his favorite pastimes — holding forth at the final press conference. Of course, no one will be surprised if in his traditional mercurial fashion, he tweets some closing thoughts later.
NATO will survive. Indeed, Trump claimed the future of the organization would be “stronger than ever.” But the much hoped for image of unity among the NATO nations was anything but and that should come as no surprise.
Neither should the fact that Trump’s traditional antics were again on display: grabbing center stage, doing battle with allies he ostensibly disrespects, taking the opportunity to defend himself on domestic issues and ensuring that his own ego takes precedence over US national interests.
That the NATO summit shared half a split screen with the Congressional impeachment inquiry hearings only tethered the NATO event more closely to the President’s personal needs and politics and ensured it would be all about him — a truly sad and unfortunate development on the 70th anniversary of perhaps America’s most important and historic alliance.
Is Trump the only one allowed to criticize NATO?
It was odd, not to mention hypocritical, to watch Trump — NATO slayer par excellence and critic of America’s freeloading allies — emerge as a seeming defender of the alliance against the “very, very nasty” and “very disrespectful” comments made by Macron in an interview with the Economist where the French president disparaged the organization.
One can be forgiven for thinking about the proverbial pot calling the kettle black. Wasn’t this the same guy who has consistently blasted the alliance for no longer serving a purpose and being filled with members that aren’t meeting their military spending obligations? One suspects that the real source of Trump’s upset with Macron had nothing to do with NATO at all but with the fact that Macron said that NATO was suffering a “brain death” because of members’ inability to cooperate.
Indeed, given Trump’s thin skin, he surely took Macron’s comments personally. And in fairness to Trump, Macron’s words could be read as — and likely were — a stab at Trump’s leadership within the organization.
That Trump chose not to give final remarks after the NATO gathering does not show that he is backing down from a fight with the leaders who have criticized him. It may well be that even Trump recognized, particularly in view of the impeachment cloud, that nothing was to be gained by another reality TV venting session. He will almost certainly choose instead to take his shots from far away in the Twittersphere.
Nonetheless, Macron and Trump’s comments revealed a deep discord over NATO, Turkey’s acquisition of Russian S-400 surface-to-air missiles, and policy on Syria that will not be healed anytime soon.
Trump hates (and loves) multilateral diplomacy
Trump may have been looking forward to the NATO trip to escape the impeachment mess in Washington and to demonstrate his presence on the world stage — especially another pomp and circumstance meeting with the queen at Buckingham Palace. Indeed, Trump criticized Democrats for pursuing impeachment inquiries while he was representing the nation at the NATO gathering.
Still, looking back on the last three years, it’s clear that Trump prefers big bilateral meetings (with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un and China’s Xi Jinping) and hates large multilateral gatherings. He undoubtedly ranks them somewhere between migraine headaches and root canal operations.
Trump has opted for foreign meetings where he will be feted and flattered and when large multinational gatherings arise, he tends to play the role of disrupter.