Trump’s Confusion Is a Threat to Europe

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- President Donald Trump’s continued misguided tweets on the subject of a pan-European army suggest Europe really does face a threat from the U.S.: in particular, the ignorance at the very top of America’s political and military hierarchy.

On Tuesday, Trump renewed an attack on Emmanuel Macron sparked by a misunderstanding of comments the French president made last week.

This was followed by some ambiguous praise for French nationalism and criticism of European import tariffs. But those are normal for Trump; as a resident of Europe, his intemperate tweets raise doubts about whether the president really is reined in by “adults in the room,” advisers who will somehow convince him that rash actions based on his misunderstandings are inadvisable. 

The spat began on Nov. 6, when Macron gave an interview to radio Europe 1, in which he said:

Europeans won’t be protected unless it’s decided to create a real European army. Faced with Russia, which is at our borders and which has showed it can be menacing, we must have a Europe that can defend itself more on its own, without depending solely on the United States and in a more sovereign way.

In the same interview, Macron also addressed cyber-threats:

We are being buffeted by attempts to intrude into our cyberspace and to interfere with our democracy by many… [unfinished sentence]. We must protect ourselves against China, Russia and even the United States of America.

By Nov. 9, a garbled version of Macron’s comments somehow reached the U.S. president. He reacted with a tweet accusing Macron of proposing an army to protect Europe “from the U.S., China and Russia,” a response that showed Trump had seen a mistranslation or conflation of the French president’s remarks. 

The tweet caused much discomfort, not least because Trump was in Paris over the weekend for commemorations of the end of World War I. But the French side tried to smooth things over by explaining that Macron never suggested creating a European army against the United States.

Clearly, the “adults” who are supposed to be making sure the president behaves himself and receives accurate information were missing in action. There are three possible reasons for this latest dust-up: 1) the chaperones don’t speak French; 2) they don’t think relations with France, a key ally, are important enough to bother Trump with explanations; or 3) they tried to get across to Trump what Macron actually said but he still didn’t get it. Each of these would be dangerous. 

Trump’s confused tweets followed a report in the French daily Le Monde that Trump blamed the Baltic states for the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s, much to the dismay of his dinner guests, the heads of Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. If any “adults in the room” briefed him for the meeting, it obviously didn’t work. We can only hope that if the U.S. president needs to make decisions related to the Baltics or the Balkans — say, on Macedonia’s membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization or the rotation of U.S. troops through Estonia — he won’t still be as misinformed about geography.

Trump’s opposition to a unified European military, a long-term project that, in the short run, could help NATO achieve more cohesion in terms of military equipment used by different European allies, also appears to be based on a curious lack of information.

This makes me wonder whether, in fact, Macron and other European leaders shouldn’t worry a little more about keeping Europe safe from the U.S. as well as Russia. A solid grasp of international relations isn’t a prerequisite for the job of U.S. president; foreign policy rightly matters less in U.S. elections than domestic issues such as health care and jobs. That means that Trump’s successor in the White House could be no better informed about the world beyond U.S. borders.

Just in case, Europeans ought to consider a scenario in which the U.S. is incapable of urgently needed action, or inclined to act recklessly. That situation doesn’t call for a European military to replace NATO, but it could be useful for the European allies to build a mechanism within NATO that would enable them to step up if the U.S. leader isn’t thinking clearly.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics and business. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.

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