(Bloomberg) -- For a guy who regularly preaches the virtues of sovereignty, Donald Trump sure had a lot to say this week about how other people are running their countries.
He attacked Angela Merkel for a pipeline deal with Russia. He badgered NATO allies to more rapidly increase their defense spending. He chastised Theresa May for ignoring his advice on exiting the European Union.
The president’s meetings with North Atlantic Treaty Organization countries and with the British prime minister were supposed to strengthen his hand entering a fraught summit with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki on Monday. Instead, Trump barreled into Europe seemingly intent on alienating some of the U.S.’s closest allies, inviting comparisons between his belligerent treatment of America’s friends and the relative warmth he’s shown its adversaries.
It’s just the latest example of Trump smashing old taboos on presidential behavior. Once, politics stopped at the water’s edge; now, Trump attacks his opponents -- and they hit back -- on foreign soil. On this trip, Trump additionally violated the standard that presidents stay out of allies’ domestic politics, in the same way that any American president would bristle at a lecture from a foreign leader on U.S. matters.
Reports on Trump’s insinuation that the U.S. might withdraw from NATO and his criticism of May’s Brexit strategy led to backpedaling and clean-up in a pair of news conferences Thursday and Friday. By the end of the week he had reaffirmed his commitment to the transatlantic alliance -- “stronger than ever,” he said -- and effusively praised the prime minister.
“I think she’s doing a terrific job,” he said after entering a news conference at Chequers, May’s country estate, holding the British leader’s hand.
He brushed off his criticism of U.S. allies. “It’s never been more united,” he said Friday of the U.S. relationship with NATO.
But Stewart Patrick, director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Trump’s behavior is more nefarious.
“He has no qualms about undermining democratically-elected leaders of allied countries, which is extraordinary in American history,” Patrick said, noting that Trump clashed with allies at the Group of Seven summit in Quebec last month before an amicable summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore.
“He blows up the G-7 summit and moves on to Singapore and lauds Kim Jong Un as a great man,” Patrick said. “Now he’s going to be going off to meet with Vladimir Putin and has continued to take a soft line on Russia.”
The behavior reflects Trump’s animus toward multilateral institutions and accords like the European Union, NATO, the North American Free Trade Agreement and perhaps even the Group of Seven nations -- which Trump said last month should once again be expanded to include Russia, which was evicted after its annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
But Patrick said he thinks Trump also “smells weakness” in May and Merkel, who both face political turbulence at home, and may in particular see some vindication in helping to undercut the German chancellor, who has championed European unity and sympathy toward immigrants and refugees.
“In both cases, he’s trying to weaken them to try to ensure their replacement by more nationalist, sovereignty-minded, populist candidates,” Patrick said.
Whether that’s true, the attacks contrast with Trump’s insistence that sovereignty is the foundation of a stable world order. He cautioned against countries dabbling in each other’s affairs in a major speech to the General Assembly last year in which he used a variation of the word “sovereign” 21 times.
“Strong, sovereign nations let diverse countries with different values, different cultures, and different dreams not just coexist, but work side by side on the basis of mutual respect,” he said. “We do not seek to impose our way of life on anyone, but rather to let it shine as an example for everyone to watch.”
No ‘Perry Mason’
Increasingly, that standard seems only to apply to America’s adversaries. In his summit with Kim, Trump barely raised North Korea’s deplorable human rights record. He has complimented Turkey’s Recep Erdogan and the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, elected leaders with authoritarian tendencies who’ve employed violence against political opponents.
Earlier this year, Trump congratulated Putin on winning re-election in a vote widely considered fraudulent, despite cautions against it from White House advisers. This week, he’s belittled the idea that he should confront the Russian leader over the Kremlin’s meddling in the 2016 U.S. election.
“I don’t think you’ll have any ‘Gee, I did it, I did it, you got me,”’ Trump said Friday, speaking shortly before the Justice Department indicted 12 Russian intelligence officials were election interference. “There won’t be a Perry Mason here, I don’t think, but you never know what happens, right?”
May and Merkel can only wish for such a light touch from the president.
©2018 Bloomberg L.P.