COPENHAGEN — European leaders see President Trump as increasingly unpredictable, antagonistic and disrespectful, both in public and private, and that is having a devastating effect on the U.S.-European relationship and the transatlantic alliance, according to former vice president Joe Biden.
“The things that are the most debilitating from the perspective of most of the Europeans is the way he conducts himself when he is with allies,” Biden told me in an interview at the Copenhagen Democracy Summit, a gathering of Western leaders to discuss the plight of democracy worldwide. “Several of them have said to me the degree of disrespect shown is debilitating.”
Biden is referring to how Trump has publicly attacked several European allied leaders, including British Prime Minister Theresa May and particularly German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who is fighting for the survival of her government as Trump criticizes her on Twitter using false statistics.
“Several of them have spoken to me about what was referred to as his gratuitous criticism of Merkel, who is in a tough spot already,” said Biden. “They’ve never seen anything like that before.”
Trump’s behavior in private meetings with several European leaders has caused not only offense but also fundamental confusion over whether the president of the United States remains committed to NATO, the liberal world order and the survival of the European Union, Biden said.
One European diplomat told me that in a private White House meeting in March, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven explained to Trump that Sweden, although not a member of NATO, partners with the alliance on a case-by-case basis. Trump responded that the United States should consider that approach. A senior administration official told me Trump was joking.
At the failed Group of Seven summit in Quebec this month, according to the Eurasia Group’s Ian Bremmer, Trump disrespected Merkel to her face, throwing two Starburst candies on a desk and saying, “Here, Angela, don’t say I never gave you anything.” A senior administration official said, “The president has very strong relations with European leaders, but he’s willing to take a strong stance to address long-standing issues that do not have easy solutions.”
Trump’s public and private push for Russia’s re-admittance to the G-7, combined with his focus on meeting Vladimir Putin before or after next month’s NATO summit, have led Europeans to wonder whether the president supports the transatlantic alliance at all.
“There’s overwhelming anxiety and it’s been punctuated with very specific concerns. That has a profound impact on what our Europeans friends think he thinks about them,” Biden said. “The consequence is disastrous for our national security and economic interests.”
In Trump’s first year, European allies gave Trump the benefit of the doubt as a non-politician and tried to address his concerns, including his criticism of NATO-member military contributions. Allies also relied on other senior Trump administration officials for reassurance that the United States would still uphold its basic commitments to the alliance and maintain its role as champion of the rules-based order.
But now in Trump’s second year, many of the officials offering such reassurance have departed. Their replacements are more willing to echo Trump’s criticisms and defend his policies, including his outreach to Russia and his launching of a trade war with Europe.
In my own private conversations with several European diplomats, I heard the same concerns and anxiety about Trump’s personal behavior and policy approach. In interviews, senior European leaders were more diplomatic.
“I’m concerned [about Trump], but I’m also convinced that this special relationship will survive,” Danish Prime Minister Lars Loekke Rasmussen told me. “He has to realize realities, and the reality of life is that Europe will stick together.”
European leaders are trying to minimize the tension and address Trump’s grievances where they can. But when Trump says or does things that have the effect of undermining U.S.-European relations, European leaders are confused and rattled.
“People in Europe worry, one about the unpredictability and two about whether there’s a real commitment to the transatlantic alliance on the basis of values, not simply on the basis of interests,” former British prime minister Tony Blair told me. “People are unclear, though clarity could very easily be given, whether these are just random statements about issues or whether they are reflective of a more profound shift of American views around the world.”
Blair also said he believes the transatlantic relationship will survive and Trump’s behavior does not represent a fundamental shift in the U.S. commitment to Europe. But Biden told me Trump’s actions feed into distrust of the liberal world order that is widening the gap between Western governments and their people, with drastic consequences.
“It lends itself to charlatans who take two isms — nationalism and populism — and use them to open up space to be able to abuse power,” Biden said. “I think that’s what’s going on right now in America.”
Biden said governments have to reconnect with their lost constituents, address their anxieties and educate them on the value that European alliances give to the United States. He also said that U.S. voters need to vote Trump out of office. I asked him whether this crisis in the democratic world makes him want to run for president in 2020. He said no.
“It makes me feel guilty about not wanting to [run for president],” he said. “But it doesn’t make me want to. I’m not looking to live in the White House, I’ve seen it up close.”
He then added: “But all kidding aside, I don’t know what I’m going to do.”