The Western Alliance Is Broken

Trump skipping a World War I commemoration is the latest sign

Nicholas Grossman
Nov 11, 2018 · 6 min read

President Trump is in Paris, but decided to skip a ceremony commemorating the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I at a nearby U.S. military cemetery. The White House claimed Trump’s trip was “canceled due to scheduling and logistical difficulties caused by the weather.” It was raining, so his helicopter couldn’t fly.

The cemetery is about 50 miles from Paris. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and other leaders made it to similar ceremonies. They all drove.

In fairness, the United States has a larger motorcade and additional security requirements. Ground transport requires advance planning.

But previous administrations made contingency plans. “What if it rains in France in November?” is not a hard question to anticipate. Have a helicopter plan and a motorcade plan — probably multiple motorcade plans. The idea that the President of the United States can’t get somewhere nearby if he wants to, absent a security threat, is ridiculous.

It’s an admission of incompetence — or, more likely, a lie.

Chief of Staff John Kelly and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joe Dunford made it to Ainse-Marne Cemetery to represent the United States. They drove.

Maybe Trump was sick. But the White House could’ve said that and sent apologies. There’s no national crisis requiring the president’s attention that wouldn’t also require Kelly’s, so that can’t be it.

The logical conclusion is that Trump didn’t want to go. The thing is, other leaders probably didn’t want him to go either.

This is far from the first friction between the American president and other Western leaders.

At a June 2017 NATO summit, Trump shocked observers when he didn’t reiterate support for Article 5 of the NATO Charter — an attack on one is an attack on all — especially since the summit commemorated the only time NATO has invoked Article 5: after September 11th.

Next came a G7 meeting where Trump clashed with the other participants, primarily on climate and trade. Afterwards, the famously cautious Merkel gave a speech in Berlin, arguing:

The times in which we could rely fully on others — they are somewhat over.

This year’s summits were worse. A week before the G7 in June, Trump placed steel and aluminum tariffs on Europe, Canada, and Mexico. The summit descended into acrimony, with Trudeau reluctantly vowing retaliatory tariffs, and Trump accusing the other members of ripping off the United States.

At the subsequent NATO meeting, Trump called Germany a “captive of Russia” because it buys Russian gas, and said members of the alliance were “delinquent.”

A month after the summits, Trump gave an interview ahead of his direct meeting with Vladimir Putin — which already had Europe on edge — calling the European Union an American “foe,” adding:

Many of those countries are in NATO and they weren’t paying their bills.

The president frequently uses language like that, casting NATO as a U.S.-owned club with members who owe back dues, rather than a mutually beneficial partnership that’s brought decades of peace and prosperity.

Underlying Trump’s approach is a reasonable argument about defense spending. As the wealthiest, most powerful member of NATO, the United States contributes the most. Other members rely on the U.S. for security and some take advantage of that to spend less on national defense. Many American presidents have tried to get them to spend more.

In 2014, NATO countries agreed to spend at least 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Obama was president, but this wasn’t a diplomatic achievement so much as a reaction to Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for rebels in Eastern Ukraine.

When Trump came into office, only five non-U.S. countries hit the 2 percent target: Greece, the United Kingdom, Estonia, Romania, and Poland. This year, Latvia and Lithuania crossed the threshold, and France is close. And Macron has called for increased effort towards building a European military.

But Trump won’t take yes for an answer. Here’s the president tweeting from Paris on Friday:

Macron didn’t really argue that Europe needed a military to protect itself from the U.S. This is what he said:

We won’t protect Europe if we don’t decide to have a true European army. In front of Russia, which is at our borders and which can be threatening… We have to have a Europe that can defend itself alone — and without only relying on the United States — in a more sovereign manner.

That recalls Merkel’s point in 2017 that Europe could no longer “rely fully on others.”

Trump could have taken credit for Macron’s stance, and called on European countries to spend the money to make it happen. Instead, he claimed to be insulted, and once again treated NATO as a club with membership dues.

“Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO.”

Oddly phrased — as if the president thinks Europe building a European army would divert funds from NATO, when it would actually mean European countries spending more on defense like he asked.

The ceremonial part of national leadership — such as commemorating the fallen on the anniversary of the armistice — often seems unimportant. But we take it for granted because leaders always do it. Show up, look serious, say a few words. When a leader doesn’t, it stands out.

Ceremonies like this contribute to the West’s shared history. We went through two World Wars together, and we work together to prevent another. Joint events keep the memory alive, honor those who sacrificed, and strengthen cultural bonds.

Skipping a ceremony and offering a lame excuse is, on its own, not a big deal. But the context is two years of harsh rhetoric, combative trade policies, discord at international summits, and a sharp disagreement over the nuclear deal with Iran.

Perhaps NATO allies originally dismissed Trump’s combativeness as campaign rhetoric or negotiating tactics. Either way, they assumed, experienced professionals would ensure continuity in foreign policy.

But after two years, it’s settling in: This is the new normal.

The Pentagon remains committed to NATO and hawkish on Russia. Military relationships developed over decades appear robust. In June, the United States led 18,000 troops from 19 countries in a military exercise in Poland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

But whatever the administration’s policies, the president’s behavior matters. European and Canadian leaders used to attend summits expecting the United States to lead them in addressing joint problems. Now they go expecting a fight. And Trump’s low approval rating in their countries gives them a political incentive to push back.

The American president speaks more positively of Vladimir Putin, Mohammed bin Salman, and Kim Jong-un than Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, and Justin Trudeau. He withdraws from international agreements and casts doubt on America’s commitment to NATO. Instead of the bedrock upon which European countries construct their national security strategies, the United States is now a source of uncertainty.

This crack in the Western alliance will grow as long as Trump is in office. Future leaders could repair it, but not entirely.

Despite over 70 years of post-war cooperation, Europe and Canada now see America as, at best, always one election from being an unreliable partner.

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