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US President Donald Trump’s inauguration speech is already largely forgotten, as journalists now concentrate on the first initiatives of his administration. But the address should deserve a more enduring attention.
For, although merely 1,400 words-long – the shortest in almost half a century of US presidential records – it talked loudest by what it did not say, and its message to Europe was grim.
Most US presidents devote their inauguration addresses to appeals for national reconciliation. Not so with Trump, whose inaugural address was indistinguishable from the tub-thumping speeches he delivered during the electoral campaign.
Worse still, the foreign policy segment of the speech was largely composed of boilerplate phrases, clichés one hears from old men propping up a bar in a desolate village. It was a list of frustrations with the world outside America’s borders rather than realistic plans for action.
Noteworthy by their absence were any mentions of America’s existing allies. Nor was there any mention of foreign policy values, no mention of democracy – certainly not for foreigners – and no reference to global principles.
Instead, the foreign universe which Trump sketched out is a jungle in which one either survives or dies, an anarchic world in which other countries inflict ‘ravages’ on the US by ‘making our products, stealing our companies, and destroying our jobs’.
It is also a world in which foreigners take advantage of the US by getting American taxpayers to protect their borders; the wealth of ordinary Americans ‘has been ripped from their homes and then redistributed across the entire world’, claimed Trump.
There was no hint that foreign trade may be mutually beneficial, and no acknowledgment that foreign military deployments may actually serve America’s own security needs. The new administration, vowed Trump, will ‘reinforce old alliances and form new ones’, perhaps an oblique reference to the possibility of forging friendly links with Russia. But that would be on America’s terms alone.
If Donald Trump and his speech writers thought that this would be an address which will go down in history, they’d be sorely disappointed. A survey by Gallup, the pollsters, indicates that only 53% of the American public rates the Trump speech as either ‘good’ or ‘excellent’, compared with 62% who rated George W Bush’s 2005 inauguration speech in favourable terms, and 81% who did so when President Barack Obama was sworn in.
In short, even almost half of the American public considers the first words uttered by the new president as not very good.
Be that as it may, the challenge for European governments is to adjust to this new administration, and there is no evidence that this is happening. Broadly speaking, European governments can be divided between those like the East Europeans who largely keep their counsels but privately fret about Trump’s pro-Russian sympathies and a large number of Western European leaders who express their dissatisfaction by tut-totting at current events. Then there is the British government, which has decided to embrace the new US administration. All these approaches carry their own dangers.
Simply expressing disapproval by treating the new Trump team as a boorish clan which somehow managed to seize an otherwise ‘progressive’ nation is the approach favoured by Germany.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was very close to Obama and earned praise for her initial decision to send Trump a long list advising him what he should do the day after his election last November, chose to absent herself from politics altogether on Trump’s inauguration day by visiting a newly-opened art museum just outside Berlin.
Steffen Seibert, her spokesman, merely said that the she ‘studied’ Donald Trump’s speech ‘with interest’.
Other key Germans were even more explicit. Sigmar Gabriel, Merkel’s deputy Chancellor, dismissed Trump’s speech as reminiscent of the ‘the political rhetoric of the conservatives and reactionaries’ in Europe during the 1920s, a grave accusation given what followed in Europe during the 1930s.
And Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier warned darkly that Trump’s election ‘spells the end to world order’.
There were also the usual clutch of European leaders who promptly claimed that this is the moment for Europe to ‘stand up’ and ‘provide’ for its own security, including the irrepressible EU Brexit negotiator Guy Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium (defence expenditure 0.9% of GDP).
Yet what is all this for? Not one of the leaders making these noises has any idea what should be done, or how Europe may be able to influence the new administration; all the noise produces is further transatlantic friction.
Influencing the new administration is precisely what Prime Minister Theresa May wishes to do. Hours after Trump delivered his inaugural address, officials in London let it be known that the British leader will fly to Washington for talks on Friday.
Such a summit –Trump’s first with an EU leader – suits both sides. It will allow the US president to recall the close relationship between Ronald Reagan, a president Trump greatly admires, and Margaret Thatcher.
An early US–UK summit will also boost May’s claims that her country is far from isolated in the world, notwithstanding Britain’s decision to leave the EU. But it also carries considerable risks. An ill-prepared and ill-advised Trump could end up meandering during the summit with May, embarrassing both sides.
Trump’s early embrace of the British will also be seen as an attempt to divide Europe; the last thing that the UK needs is to be regarded as a battering ram for a US administration which wishes to promote the break-up of the EU.
Most European capitals hope that Trump may moderate his stance by the time he attends his first summit in Europe, provisionally scheduled for March.
But it is already clear what European governments should do. They need not sacrifice principles, nor do they need to go along with Trump’s ideas. But they do need to talk down their differences with Washington, if only in order to prevent the revival of popular anti-Americanism in Europe, a real possibility at the moment.
And they also need to exchange opinions about their first experiences with the new administration. May will be well-advised to circulate her impressions of the summit with Trump widely among other EU governments.
Not a grand concept or a marvellous new idea, to be sure. But much better than just tut-tutting at an administration which remains determined to ‘make America great again’, even if this means knocking down others.
Banner image: President Donald Trump being sworn in on 20 January 2017 at the US Capitol building in Washington DC as wife Melania Trump and other family members look on. Courtesy of White House Photographer/Wikimedia.