If we allow ourselves a few moments of wild fantasy and imagine that U.S. President Donald Trump is actually an agent of the Kremlin, there’s no doubt that they are very happy right now with his performance. He’s advanced their interests beyond their wildest expectations. In just 130 days in office, Trump has undermined America’s confidence in itself and its democracy by casting doubt on the integrity of its elections, undermining the credibility of its free press, launching unbridled attacks on judges who rule against his wishes and making an undisguised attempt to stifle an FBI investigation of his campaign's alleged ties to the Kremlin. In a move that should earn him a hefty bonus, Trump has also declared open season on America’s intelligence community, accusing it of political motives, callously deposing one of its senior figures and trying to use it for his own personal gain.
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Trump, who said he would “drain the swamp,” has embraced nepotism, conflicts of interest and direct payments into the bank accounts of his family’s businesses. If you look hard enough, his White House starts to resemble a cash register.
His “accomplishments” in foreign affairs are no less impressive. Trump swiftly abandoned Ronald Reagan’s New Testament vision of a “shining city on the hill” that stands up for freedom and democracy throughout the world. He threatened trade and immigration wars with Canada and Mexico, America’s two good neighbors, who have since turned into suspicious rivals. He pulled out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, sending Asian countries to seek cover under China’s steadier hand, and is now threatening to repeat the trick by withdrawing from the Paris Agreement on climate change. It’s true, he was greeted as a savior in Israel, was given a royal welcome in Saudi Arabia, was hailed as God’s gift to the Sunni nation and even bombed Syria, much to the delight of critics of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s soft hand, even though it didn’t do much to help even one Syrian refugee.
But Trump’s most significant triumph, in the eyes of his completely imaginary handlers in Moscow, must be in Europe, on their own Western front. While Trump has steadfastly refrained from calling out Russia for actions that have enraged the West in recent years, including the invasion of Crimea in Ukraine and wholesale intervention in Western elections, he has steadily undercut the very foundations of the North Atlantic alliance and the united front of Western democratic country. Trump tried to sabotage the European Union by cheering Brexit and embracing its supporters throughout the continent. He is weakening NATO by disparaging its abilities and casting doubt on its continued existence if member countries don’t pay their fair share of dues. He created panic in Baltic countries by questioning whether they are worth saving and sparked anxiety among NATO members by refusing to commit to its crucial mutual defense clause. He left many Europeans with a sense that the iron wall that has protected them for the past 70 years is weakening, with Russia eagerly awaiting its collapse.
In addition to lingering suspicions sparked by news reports from the U.S. about his exact ties to Moscow, Europeans were taken aback by the fact that Trump’s treated them with the same combination of bluntness and arrogance that won over millions of Americans but were regarded overseas as the return of the "ugly American." Amazingly, Trump reserved his worst coarseness for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, perhaps because she is a woman, or possibly because he knows she is a far more knowledgeable and responsible world leader than he is, maybe because she so obviously preferred the company of his predecessors Barack Obama and George Bush or arguably because he thought she is bound to be swept away by the rising wave of a great nationalist, anti-immigration movement which he purports to lead.
In recent days, however, Merkel has let Trump know what she thinks of him and of his European policies. She has uttered, and then repeated, otherwise astonishing statements that contradicted White House efforts to spin Trump’s European jaunt as a smashing success, casting doubt on the basic resilience of the American-European alliance in the process. Trump sowed an evil wind, and he is now reaping an ugly storm.
Merkel motives are complex. She was undoubtedly offended by Trump’s simplistic worldview and rude behavior, including his refusal to shake her hand at their White House meeting in March, but political expediency is also playing a major role. Merkel faces a tough battle in the upcoming September 24 general elections in which she hopes to be elected for a fourth straight term. Her escalating conflict with Trump has given her campaign a shot in the arm, weakened the resentment she sparked by her willingness to absorb hundreds of thousands of refugees and stopped the steady rise of her main rival, the social Democrat Martin Schultz. The success of Emmanuel Macron in the recent French elections, and his defeat of Trump's darling Marine Le Pen, has emboldened Merkel even further, providing her with a solid continental base to launch balustrades at Trump. Merkel and Macron, it seems, will be competing over the next few months for the title of European champion in dumping on Trump.
Perhaps Trump is too ignorant to appreciate how his statements and positions are a shock to the foundations of the European system. The European Union is the continent’s bedrock. NATO is its security lifeline. The close ties between Germany and the United States, that can be traced to the benign U.S. occupation in post-war Germany, to the generous and far-sighted Marshall Plan, which enabled the West German “wirtschaftswunder,” or economic miracle and to the constant presence of a formidable U.S. fighting force on German soil are all part of the new Germany’s concept of itself as well as the source of its considerable anti-American sentiment. The relations have known ups and downs, of course, most recently during the Obama administration because of revelations of spying against Merkel and U.S. demands, which are not new, for Berlin to up its NATO ante, but Trump, in his self-centered behavior, so completely lacking in any self-awareness, has brought matters to a boil.
The conflict does not exist in a vacuum, of course. Even without Trump, the American right has had nothing but disdain for Europe, which it views as a Godless decadent entity too weak to defend itself, which sucks the lifeblood of America. The multilateralism enshrined in the EU, along with the prevailing liberalism that characterizes it, have traditionally disgusted American conservatives as well. But Trump’s predecessors from both parties, nonetheless respected NATO as a bulwark against Soviet and then Russia expansionism and appreciated the continent’s assistance, especially Germany’s, in the war on terror. A president seeking arguably justified changes in NATO would go about it with tact and nuance, two traits, to put it mildly, that Trump does not seem to have.
Many Israelis identify with the American right’s attitude and may be rejoicing at Trump’s hostility towards Europe. In addition to disdaining its overall character, Israelis are resentful at the EU’s efforts to intervene in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and to lecture Israel about human rights violations in the territories. But an America that is estranged from Europe won’t be able to restrain its anti-Israel initiatives or and attempts to punish it for the occupation. More broadly, one shouldn’t forget that Israel was born, grew and thrived under the protective umbrella of the U.S.-Europe alliance, which safeguarded the West, protected democracy, thwarted Soviet plots and rehabilitated and democratized Eastern Europe after the fall of Communism. Israel’s national security depends, among other things, on a strong and stable Western alliance.
It’s premature, of course, to eulogize the EU, NATO or even America’s relations with Europe. Merkel and Macron are bound to calm down after flexing their muscles and retrieving their lost honor and responsible officials in Washington are also engaging in limiting the damage. But the unpredictable factor remains the unguided missile called Donald Trump, whose uncontrolled mouth, unpredictable behavior and vulnerable and volatile ego could make things even worse. Whether he really works for them or just happens to believe in politics that further their aims, there’s no doubt that those people at the Kremlin have sound reasons to celebrate their good fortune and their number one asset in the West.