As Donald Trump’s first foreign trip as president comes to an end, we bring you a scorecard to help sift through the waves of news coverage in multiple languages and viral photos in the now-universal language of snark. Like a contestant in one of his beauty pageants, we will score the trip in multiple categories: Appearances; Congeniality (to allies); American jobs; World peace.
Let’s consider this first because, in politics as at beauty pageants, we cannot overstate its importance. And although a president’s foreign travel is wrapped in a veil of Kissingeresque mystery, it tends to be about domestic politics. Trump hit his mark at every stop here, from basking in Saudis’ pomp and splendor to staking out photo ops at religious landmarks in Israel, Palestine, and Rome, each appealing to a key political demographic back home. His family were decorous and stunning (and those cunning little hats at the Vatican! Like your grandma, if she were a cover model). Melania in the NATO First Ladies photo made us proud to be American — we import the best. A small deduction for the weird Saudi orb and the awkward business of bowing to a Muslim autocrat and bumping the prime minister of Montenegro. But Trump comes home with a year’s worth of images to reinforce the story he tells his core supporters.
Keeping Our Friends Close
The president seems to believe that key international allies can be taken for granted or serve as backdrops for lecturing. But American alliances are something different — they provide the intelligence, trade relationships, and additional military forces that promote American safety and let our leadership come at a price our citizens are willing to pay. That adds up to more than the Miss Congeniality title. Trump hugged our Saudi, Egyptian, and Gulf Arab allies very tightly.
But he left the impression both in Israel and Europe that he values his own political ends more than the sanctity of America’s most sensitive intelligence relationships, almost carelessly confirming Israel as the source of sensitive material he shared with Russia and then waiting a day to criticize his own administration’s leaking of police intelligence from the Manchester bombing investigation. In both cases, political leaders papered over concerns. But intelligence agencies fumed off the record — and suggested that a pattern of this behavior would put cooperation at risk.
Then there’s the question of Russia. NATO members wanted one thing from this mini-summit: that the U.S. president would reaffirm, as had every president since World War II, that the U.S. regards an attack on any NATO member as an attack on itself. That’s the foundation of the NATO Treaty, after all, and the one under which NATO members unhesitatingly came to our aid after 9/11. Russia asked Trump not to do it. He didn’t.
Final result: He is undermining the U.S.’s longest-standing alliances. Think we can replace France, Germany, and the U.K. with Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and Bahrain? Unlikely.
Making It Rain Back Home
Trump presents himself as trade-negotiator and job-creator-in-chief. So, how’d he do? During the Saudi Arabia stop, the administration announced that it had concluded a $110 billion arms deal with the Saudis, and that U.S. companies had concluded deals worth an additional $55 billion. Many of those deals, however, were for U.S. investments in Saudi Arabia, to improve its oil and gas sector and build its own defense capacities — great for Wall Street, but no U.S. jobs or infrastructure there.
The tanks, planes, ships, and missiles the Saudis are getting do represent real jobs — not all of them new, but certainly saving SOME by keeping existing production lines open. And those jobs are well paid, thanks to the generous profit margins in the defense industry. They are, however, subsidized with billions of your tax dollars. It’s important here to keep in mind that defense spending is the least efficient way possible to use government dollars to create jobs.
And speaking of manufacturing jobs, how did the president do on that front in Europe — our second-largest export market? In a meeting with the senior officials of the European Union, he called Germany “bad, very bad,” and threatened to “stop them” selling cars in the U.S., according to participants who spoke to German media. What’s wrong with that? The majority of those cars are built by Americans … in red states. German corporations create 700,000 jobs in the U.S., including Mercedes and Volkswagen assembly lines and the largest BMW plant in the world.
So, our great negotiator gratuitously insulted one major trading partner while making nice to a smaller one? Suggests poor math skills.
Keeping America Safe
Finally, there is the actual matter of national security. Did this trip help make the United States more secure and the world we live in more peaceful? We already noted that the president chipped away at NATO solidarity, making the balance between anxious Europeans and an aggressive Russia more difficult to sustain. Expert opinion is divided, at best, on whether the president’s cuddles with the Saudis make conflict with Iran more or less likely. Possibly you missed news reports that White House staff blocked the G7 industrial leaders from even discussing migration and refugees — a crisis for Europe, and for the dozen men, women, and children who die each day in efforts to reach Europe by boat. You certainly missed any concrete discussion of how the U.S. can help bring a resolution to the Syrian or Israeli-Palestinian conflicts — because there wasn’t any. And then there is that little matter of those weapons we sold the Saudis, many of which will be used in a war in Yemen — not so much to target the Al Qaeda terrorists there, but in a conflict that has put millions at risk of starvation and threatens to explode into all-out war between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
Think of it like this: The appeals of this foreign trip, like those in a beauty pageant, were mostly superficial.
Heather Hurlburt (@natsecHeather) has held foreign-policy positions in Congress, the White House, and State Department.