President Donald Trump’s penchant for pummeling allies while pampering adversaries was perversely apparent in recent days.
In the run-up to the G-7 summit in Quebec with Canada, Britain, France, Germany, Italy and Japan he began a bizarre trade war with most of them (a war that will hurt U.S. workers and companies). He waged ugly phone and Twitter spats with French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
But when it came to America’s adversaries, Trump was in full suck-up mode. Before leaving for Quebec, he proposed that Russia should be part of the G-7 meeting. (Never mind that Vladimir Putin was ejected from the group in 2014 after Russia invaded Ukraine.) Trump also gave Beijing a huge gift — dropping sanctions against a Chinese telecom company that had threatened U.S. security. And the president suggested he might invite North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to the White House.
“We seem to want to punish our allies and befriend our enemies,” said Tennessee Republican Sen. Bob Corker. Which raises the question of why the president is clearly more comfortable dealing with autocrats than with America’s democratic partners and friends. The question is far from academic, since the president’s blinkered behavior plays right into the autocrats’ hands.
Indeed, how can you explain Trump’s behavior toward Canada, our close neighbor and second-largest trading partner (almost equal to China), with whom we share a language, history, values and a peaceful border? While there are trade disputes between our countries, the overall balance of trade in goods and services is in America’s favor.
“The idea that we are somehow a national security threat to the United States is quite frankly insulting and unacceptable,” Trudeau told NBC last week. Yet in a testy phone call with Trudeau, Trump quipped, “Didn’t you guys burn down the White House?” referring to the War of 1812. Of course, as usual, Trump had his facts wrong — it was the Brits who burned the White House.
But for Trump, infuriating allies with fake facts is just another day at the office. The cost of this bullying behavior is likely to be so high to U.S. workers and companies that it has sparked a bipartisan effort in Congress to block the improper use of “security threat” to start a trade war. However, much damage has already been done. As the Toronto Star wrote, “(Trump’s) erratic, hostile behaviour toward the United States’ traditional allies is undermining Washington’s credibility around the world.”
This Trumped-up trade war is symptomatic of the president’s cavalier attitude toward countries that share America’s democratic values. It’s not just that Trump has repeatedly denigrated NATO and the European Union. It’s not only that he rejects efforts to curb climate change and abandoned the Iran nuclear deal, despite intense efforts by European leaders to work out a tougher joint approach toward Tehran. It’s not simply that he showed, in his very ugly phone call last week with Macron — a leader who has tried hard to be friendly — that he can’t stand any legitimate criticism from our closest allies.
What worries U.S. allies most is that Trump has made it clear he favors European populist parties of the far right — which stir fear and division — over traditional democratic parties. And he prefers autocrats like Putin to democrats like Germany’s Angela Merkel and Macron.
Just last week, Trump’s newly appointed ambassador to Germany, Richard Grenell, a former Fox News commentator, stirred up immense anger by saying it was his goal to “empower” anti-establishment conservative forces in Europe. This was taken as a direct challenge to Merkel (a conservative but not a populist). When the German government protested, the Trump administration backed Grenell.
No one benefits more from Trump’s disdain for onetime Western partners than Putin. Trump’s insistence that Putin should be restored to the G-7 is an unreciprocated gift to Moscow. So is talk of a Trump summit with Putin — unless the president bluntly confronts the Russian leader about his cyber espionage in Europe and the U.S.
Yet Trump has displayed little taste for pushing back against strongmen with whom he holds summits. Witness the dropped tariffs against China’s ZTE telecom company. “ZTE is a much greater national security threat than steel from . Europe,” tweeted Florida’s GOP Sen. Marco Rubio.
Yet Trump was willing to do this favor for Xi Jinping, in a case where tariffs were fully justified, when he wouldn’t listen to Macron or Trudeau.
So what motivates Trump’s love for autocrats? He clearly feels more comfortable with them than he does with Western democratic leaders. Autocrats can act solo (and don’t have to worry about the rule of law, a Trump dream, as we saw last week). The president thinks he can do great deals mano a mano with tough guys.
On the contrary. As he breaks the alliances that multiply American strength, Trump is making Putin and Xi stronger (and undermining the chance of truly ridding North Korea of all its nuclear weapons). He is leaving himself alone without allies. He may prefer the axis of autocrats to the G-7, but those autocrats are out to undermine this country — and him.
Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for The Philadelphia Inquirer.