In 1906, Theodore Roosevelt visited the canal being constructed in Panama, becoming the first U.S. president to leave the country while in office. William Howard Taft also visited Panama and Mexico. But it was not until Woodrow Wilson went to Paris in November 1918 — a hundred years ago this month — to attend the postwar peace conference that attending international meetings and hobnobbing with foreign heads of state became an accepted, indeed integral part, of the president’s job.
No president has been worse at this diplomatic function than Donald Trump. He is most comfortable in rallies before throngs of adoring acolytes. When he goes overseas, he is sycophantic with dictators and painfully ill at ease among democratic leaders, because his protectionist and isolationist views are so out of line with theirs, and he is utterly incapable of defending himself with reasoned discourse. He makes boastful speeches, sulks and pouts if his ego is not massaged, and then retreats to the safety of his hotel room or airplane to zing his peers via Twitter.
Trump’s latest trip to Europe was, as usual, an embarrassment to the country that he leads. It began and ended with Twitter insults. On Friday, upon arriving in France, Trump attacked his host for a “very insulting” statement that he had not actually made. French President Emmanuel Macron had said that the European Union needed an army to protect itself without relying on the United States, not that it needed an army to protect itself from the United States.
On Monday, after returning to the United States, Trump unleashed a flurry of tweets repeating his frequent, false accusation that NATO allies are ripping us off because the United States supposedly pays for their military protection while allegedly losing “hundreds of billions of dollars with those same countries on trade.” How this squares with his July boast that he had made NATO “strong again” because its members had suddenly agreed to “pay hundreds of Billions of Dollars more” is a mystery that eludes elucidation. Neither claim has any validity — NATO members had not agreed to pay more, and they are not ripping off the United States.
In between those tweets, Trump canceled a Saturday visit to an American war cemetery because of a little light rain. This made him an instant international punch line, with the French army tweeting a picture of a soldier training under the caption “There is rain but it does not matter.” Macron, for his part, rebuked Trump to his face, warning in a speech of the dangers of the nationalist doctrine that Trump has embraced. “By putting our own interests first, with no regard for others, we erase the very thing that a nation holds dearest, and the thing that keeps it alive: its moral values,” Macron said. The isolation of the president was complete when he skipped a march by world leaders down the Champs-Élysées and flew home before the start of the Paris Peace Forum. Once again, “America First” has become “America Alone.”
This was the most embarrassing trip by an American president abroad … since the last one Trump took. That was the trip in July when he acted utterly supine before Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, accepting as truthful his “strong and powerful” denials of Russian interference in the U.S. presidential election. That, in turn, came only a month after Trump met with Kim Jong Un in Singapore and came away boasting that “there is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea,” even though North Korea is expanding rather than dismantling its nuclear arsenal. That farcical photo-op summit, in turn, occurred just days after Trump had stormed out of the Group of Seven meeting in Canada denouncing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau as “Very dishonest & weak.”
The record of Trump’s earlier trips abroad is no more salutary. There was his initial foray aboard, to Riyadh in May 2017, when he was photographed with his hand on a glowing orb and gave the Saudi king and crown prince a blank check that they apparently later cashed by murdering Post Opinions contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Shortly thereafter Trump traveled to Europe, where the headlines were about his refusal to affirm NATO’s Article 5 mutual defense provision. He returned to Europe in July 2017 to praise Poland’s increasingly autocratic government and to hatch with Putin a fanciful plan to cooperate with Russia on cybersecurity — akin to asking the mob to take over the police force. Last fall, he visited Asia and gave a good speech in Seoul before turning obsequious in front of the autocratic leaders of China and the Philippines.
It’s just as well that Trump is skipping this week’s Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summits. Bad as he is at home — no president has been more incoherent, dishonest and offensive — he is even worse overseas. Is there a single good thing that has occurred when Trump has gone abroad?