At a NATO ceremony in Brussels on Thursday, President Trump appeared, in a moment captured on video, to push aside another world leader to get a spot at the front. That prompted pundits to joke that after eight years of Barack Obama’s cautious foreign policy, the United States was no longer “leading from behind.”
But Trump’s remarks at the event celebrating the Article 5 mutual defense treaty left the impression of a president who continues to lead from the side — with one foot in and one foot out when it comes to U.S. multilateral commitments.
Whether it’s NATO, the Paris climate pact, the Iran nuclear deal or the NAFTA trade accord, the Trump administration has wavered and equivocated, failing to offer a full-throated endorsement and allowing such agreements to continue in an awkward state of limbo
without U.S. leadership and nourishment.
Thursday’s ceremony at the new NATO headquarters was supposed to put an end to the uncertainty among U.S. allies and partners in Europe. Trump’s aides had laid the groundwork, hinting to reporters that the president, who had questioned the security alliance during his campaign, would directly endorse Article 5.
Instead, Trump found no space to do so in his 900-word address, as he stood next to a new monument symbolizing the treaty — a twisted piece of metal from the World Trade Center after it was destroyed in the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack in New York City.
Article 5 was invoked by NATO for the first time after the attacks that day.
“I was fully convinced he would do it because it’s very simple,” said Thomas Wright, a Europe expert at the Brookings Institution. “It was the perfect time, standing aside the wreckage. . . . It’s very surprising he didn’t do it. I think it’s a real problem for him. It automatically turns the trip into a failure from a policy point of view.”
The critical reaction, which came quickly on social media, forced White House aides to try to clean up after the president. Speaking to reporters in Brussels, press secretary Sean Spicer said that Trump’s participation in the event demonstrated his support.
“I think it’s a bit silly,” Spicer said, adding that the idea of Trump “having to reaffirm” his administration’s support for Article 5 while he was attending a ceremony celebrating it “is almost laughable.”
Trump campaigned on a nationalist agenda that promised to put “America first,” and he expressed deep skepticism of the U.S.-led multilateral institutions that emerged after World War II.
Since he assumed office, however, Trump has failed to follow through on some of his most extreme rhetoric to withdraw the United States from global partnerships, other than the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which he scrapped in his first week. He has emphasized the importance of NATO during remarks at the White House.
His reluctance to blow up the agreements has been widely viewed as a realization by a new president that complicated global problems — including terrorism and North Korea’s nuclear threat — require broad-based international cooperation. It also has been seen as an example of the rising influence of more-moderate factions within a West Wing racked by infighting among advisers with roots in Wall Street and those with more populist convictions.
But Trump has continued to denounce what he views as an unfair system that puts undue burdens on the United States. He chided NATO partners during his remarks Thursday for failing to devote 2 percent of their nation’s budgets to defense to meet a goal established by the organization.
For NATO countries, the upshot is that their relations with the Trump administration continue to be defined by uncertainty and anxiety even as the president wraps up a maiden foreign trip this weekend that aimed to reaffirm U.S. global leadership.
“It creates a hedging behavior,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a global risk consulting firm, pointing to countries such as Germany and France that have long had close relations with the United States.
Trump’s posture “makes it more likely these countries are going their own way,” Bremmer said. “There will be some move towards more coordination of European-only security, and there will be less coordination with the United States.”
Trump’s aides insist that his foreign policy is purposely unpredictable, aimed at keeping other countries off balance and giving the United States an edge — at the bargaining table or on the battlefield. The president’s threats last month to withdraw from NAFTA resulted in the leaders of Canada and Mexico reportedly agreeing in principle to engage in talks to amend the terms of the 23-year-old trade accord.
In many cases, however, it is not even clear what is being negotiated.
Ahead of Trump’s attendance at Friday’s Group of Seven summit in Sicily, negotiators have been trying to get the United States to sign a joint statement that would walk the administration closer to endorsing the Paris climate pact inked in 2015 to reduce carbon emissions.
Trump denounced the deal during the campaign and has moved to reverse Obama-era regulations on automobiles and power plants. Inside the West Wing, advisers are sharply divided over whether to end U.S. support for the Paris deal.
Andrew Light, who served as a senior adviser on climate change at the State Department in the Obama administration, said things look promising for a joint statement on climate at the G-7 summit. But Light emphasized that even if the United States signs on, it would not be a direct reaffirmation of the Paris accord.
Therefore, he said, it will remain uncertain where Trump stands unless he personally voices clear support during the summit.
“There’s a lot of hesitation to put out a clear statement of policy” among the Trump administration, said Light, now a senior fellow at the World Resources Institute. “It’s not policy unless the president says it is.”
Rivals have spotted openings in Trump’s equivocations. China has promoted its commitment not just to global free trade agreements but also to the Paris climate pact, while U.S. allies in its sphere of influence — including the Philippines and Australia — have looked to deepen ties with Beijing. Although the hedging
began under the Obama administration, analysts said, it has sped up under Trump.
Some analysts said that it is becoming clearer that regardless of the ongoing policy divisions within the West Wing, Trump is fundamentally skeptical of multilateralism and will remain hostile to such agreements.
“I don’t think this is about sending a message to his base to get their support — it’s a conviction,” said Wright, the Brookings analyst. “I always thought Trump was more ideological than people think on a small number of things. This is one of them.”