The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

As Trump prepares to visit Paris, Europeans wonder whether ‘America first’ is built to last

President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron embrace at the White House in April 2018.
President Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron embrace at the White House in April 2018. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)
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PARIS — Politically wounded in Washington, President Trump is slated to arrive here late Friday for a weekend gathering with world leaders who are eager for signs of whether his “America First” agenda has long-term staying power.

Trump has spent nearly two years reordering U.S. relations abroad, unsettling allies on trade and defense and reaching out to the authoritarian leaders of North Korea and Russia. While the Republicans’ loss of control of the House in the midterm elections could scuttle the White House’s domestic legislative agenda, it is less of an obvious blow for the president on foreign policy, where he enjoys greater leeway to act unilaterally.

European leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, who is playing host at an Armistice Day ceremony at the Arc de Triomphe on Sunday marking the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I, have been mostly muted in their reaction to the election outcome. Foreign-affairs analysts said the Europeans, bruised by Trump’s sharp-
elbowed posture, are under no illusions that his tone toward them will change despite the ballot box rebuke, and they are bracing for the possibility that the president could be emboldened to take more confrontational or destabilizing actions abroad if he is hemmed in at home.

At the same time, foreign officials will be trying to assess whether the erosion of Trump’s political power signals a potential, if not immediate, shift back toward a more traditional U.S. leadership role internationally, propelled by the American public.

“The whole world is asking the same question about America — is this permanent, or is this temporary?” said Thomas Wright, a Europe analyst at the Brookings Institution. The election outcome, with a divided Congress, means that question was not answered in the midterms, he added, leaving a full referendum on Trumpism “postponed until 2020. He could be reelected, but we don’t know and will have to continue to wait and see.”

European leaders see Democratic House gains as a blow to Trump’s ‘rudeness’ and ‘racism’

That uncertainty could cast an uneasy mood on the Paris festivities, which Macron has promoted to serve as a reminder of the costs of the Great War. It comes at a time of rising populism across the globe that has disrupted the liberal international order that has long defined security in Europe. In addition to the ceremony, Macron has invited world leaders to participate in the Paris Peace Forum, aimed at forging cooperation on shared global challenges, including climate change.

But Trump is not expected to take part in the forum, another signal of the conflicting world view between him and Macron, whose forced early efforts to forge a connection — filled with power-grip handshakes and awkward hugs — has given way to a more tempered, businesslike relationship. They’ll hold a bilateral meeting Saturday to discuss areas of tension, including Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Iran nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions on Tehran, as well as the security situation in Syria and, potentially, trade relations.

On the eve of the gathering, Macron signaled the ongoing concerns among some European leaders about waning U.S. commitment when he floated the prospect of a combined European army to protect nations from China, Russia and “even the United States.”

“When I see President Trump announcing that he’s quitting a major disarmament treaty, which was formed after the 1980s Euro-missile crisis that hit Europe, who is the main victim? Europe and its security,” Macron said in an interview with Europe 1 radio, referring to the pending U.S. withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces agreement with Russia.

Trump announced his trip here after reluctantly scuttling plans for a U.S. military parade in Washington on Veterans Day over the exorbitant costs and instead agreed to return to Paris, where he had joined Macron for a military parade on Bastille Day in July 2017.

Trump had reveled in that display of raw national power, but the ceremony this weekend will not include tanks and missiles, instead featuring a more solemn display of remembrance involving more than 100 world leaders.

At a news conference this week, the president touted the Armistice Day ceremony as a “great event” and said he was proud to be “representing the incredible heroes of the world [and] the heroes of our country from World War I.”

Yet his itinerary remains relatively sparse. He and first lady Melania Trump will tour a pair of memorial sites to pay homage to American troops who died in battle. But the president has no other bilateral meetings scheduled, though he could speak informally with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin during a luncheon, aides said, mostly aimed at setting up a formal meeting at the Group of 20 summit in Buenos Aires this month.

Ahead of President Trump’s arrival, French government officials were mostly mum about the U.S. election results. But other European leaders expressed hopes that American voters had sent a message to rein in Trump’s nationalist impulses.

Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s first vice president, declared that the outcome was a rebuke of Trump by voters “who chose hope over fear, civility over rudeness, inclusion over racism, equality over discrimination. They stood up for their values. And so will we.”

In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has tangled with Trump, announced she would step down as chancellor when her term expires in 2021, in the face of opposition from the kind of right-wing, anti-
immigrant forces that propelled Trump’s political rise. German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said the continent would do well to respond to Trump’s “America First” line with “Europe United,” and said he hoped the Democrats’ return to power in the House would lead to greater cooperation from the United States in inter­national affairs.

“We’ll see to what extent that has an impact,” Maas said.

During his news conference, Trump was asked about his campaign rhetoric, which critics said amounted to a rhetorical appeal to white nationalists among his conservative base. At rallies in the weeks leading up to the midterms, Trump declared himself a “nationalist” and continued to decry the influence of “globalists” whose policies, in his view, hurt American workers and led to unchecked immigration.

“I love our country. I do,” Trump said, after accusing the reporter of asking a “racist” question. “You have nationalists. You have globalists. I also love the world, and I don’t mind helping the world, but we have to straighten out our country first. We have a lot of problems.”

Julie Smith, who served as deputy national security adviser for Vice President Joe Biden, said Europeans are “looking for some sign that America wants to right the ship” on foreign policy after two years of Trump.

At the same time, “Europeans are very clear-eyed about the balance of power in the United States,” added Smith, who is on an international-affairs fellowship in Germany. “While they may have some reassurances when they see Democrats retake the House, they also understand they are still left with a U.S. president who fundamentally does not like the Europeans and questions the utility of the relationship — and that problem is not going to change.”

James McAuley contributed to this report.