Just before President Trump announced on Friday that he would decertify the Iran nuclear deal, French President Emmanuel Macron called his counterpart in Tehran to offer reassurance, Macron’s office said in a statement. No matter what Trump said, he told Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, Europe would continue to back the agreement.
The Europeans were only interested in Iran’s money, Trump scoffed to reporters later that day. Macron, he said, had also called him.
“I said: ‘Look, Emmanuel, they just gave Renault a lot of money,’ ” Trump related, referring to a recent business deal between Iran and the French carmaker. “ ‘Take their money; enjoy yourselves. But we’ll see what happens.’”
What has already happened is a widening chasm of mutual disdain between the United States and its traditional allies. Trump sees them as self-interested freeloaders who must be reminded of U.S. power. They see him as an erratic force who must be managed as he squanders American leadership.
Republican and Democratic lawmakers were largely split in their reactions to Trump’s announcement that he would terminate the nuclear deal if Congress didn’t come up with a way to rewrite it to his liking. Many Republicans congratulated the president and agreed it was time to get tough against Iran.
Many Democrats criticized Trump for what Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) said was “clearly a political decision” made to please his base voters “and not a strategic one.” Reed and others warned that Trump’s insistence on changing the original agreement risked conflict and would be opposed by U.S. negotiating partners who had also signed it — Britain, France, Germany, Russia and China.
When Trump invited them to join him in holding Iran’s feet to the fire, Russia and China said there was nothing to talk about. The Europeans, in a joint statement, said they were eager to discuss their shared complaints about Iran — its ballistic missile program and support for terrorism — but that there could be no changes in the nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, or JCPOA.
European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini bordered on scornful, saying in a statement Friday that the JCPOA “is not a domestic issue” and “does not belong to any single country” to demand changes. Trump was powerful, she said, but did not have the power to do that.
But several senior officials from the European signatory countries said privately that there was little to be gained, for now, by shouting their opposition. Instead, their plan is to continue trying to convince U.S. lawmakers that there was much to lose if they take the path Trump has set for Congress.
All refused to speak for quotation out of what they said was worry that they would add fuel to an already smoldering fire. But they uniformly expressed concern about what they described as yet another instance of America walking away from an international commitment.
Last spring, as Trump prepared for his first overseas trip in May, White House aides outlined his game plan to assume the mantle of global primacy.
“One thing he has the ability to do is really bring people together and galvanize people around a common set of goals,” a senior adviser said in describing objectives for the 10-day tour that took Trump to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Rome, Brussels and a G-20 meeting in Sicily.
Rather than a liability, Trump’s “unpredictability . . . is a real asset,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under White House ground rules. The new president, he said, was “sending one big message, which is America is ready to lead in the world again.”
Yet instead of leading, Trump’s “my way or the highway” approach has been a detour from the multilateral road the United States has traveled since World War II. And as Trump has left behind, or threatened to, the premier international agreements of this century, from the Paris climate accord to global trade alliances and now the Iran nuclear deal, he has not had many willing followers.
Among the exceptions, governments in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates joined Israel in praising what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Trump’s “courageous” decision on Iran.
Yet even those who have proclaimed him as a leader have sometimes not felt bound by his demands. Early in his administration, Trump gently chastised Israel for its West Bank settlements, saying that they “don’t help the process” and were not “a good thing for peace.” He has remained silent, however, as Netanyahu’s government, including as recently as last week, has approved additional settlements, leading some perplexed Israeli commentators to speculate on whether he made a “secret” deal with Netanyahu.
In May, when the heads of dozens of Muslim-majority countries gathered in Riyadh to listen to him speak about a unified fight against terrorism, Trump claimed credit for a unity agreement on counterterrorism cooperation signed with the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Just days later, the Saudis and Emiratis, joined by fellow GCC member Bahrain and Egypt, broke relations with Qatar, another council member, and closed their air and sea borders to it. While Trump initially supported the action — even as his State and Defense Department secretaries called for it to be reversed — he later changed course.
Appearing last month with the visiting emir of Kuwait, Trump called for the gulf states to patch up their differences and said if the problem wasn’t “quickly” resolved, he would summon regional leaders to the White House and take care of it. Since then, he has said nothing publicly about a presidential intervention.
Trump has claimed massive progress in the U.S. fight against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq under his leadership. But he was unable to persuade Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government, one of America’s closest military and political allies in the region, to call off an independence referendum late last month that has left Iraq in a turmoil the administration has been powerless to resolve.
Similarly in Turkey, where Trump last month said bilateral ties under his administration were “better than ever,” relations now seem to be at a modern all-time low, with tit-for-tat suspension of visa issuance earlier this month.
Rather than “galvanizing” respect and unity, Trump sometimes appears to engender resentment and division. Although NATO members agreed in 2014 to increase their domestic defense spending, Trump’s exhortations and threats to diminish the U.S. presence in the alliance seemed to spur some countries to speed up that process. But his subsequent chest-beating has left many irritated and bitter.
Even in Asia, where he has worked to build personal relationships with Chinese President Xi Jinping, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe — both of whom he will visit on a lengthy trip next month — Trump can befuddle. Early this month, he undercut Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s efforts to keep open channels of communication with North Korea, telling Tillerson via Twitter to stop “wasting his time” trying to negotiate with Pyongyang over its nuclear weapons program. North Korea, he said, had “made fools” of U.S. negotiators in the past.
On Friday, Trump told reporters that “if something can happen where we can negotiate,” with North Korea, “I’m always open to that.”