In Trump’s White House, foreign policy is now made on a whim

Quite a few Europeans woke up Tuesday morning to sunshine (the weather is finally good here) and some cheerful news: The Trump administration would not, in fact, be slapping steel and aluminum tariffs on the continent, and the European Union would not, in fact, be responding with tariffs of its own. Even the night before, no one knew what the White House would decide. Extraordinary preparations had already been made. The E.U.’s trade commissioner, Cecilia Malmstrom, had drawn up a list of carefully chosen retaliatory tariffs, including one on motorcycles (meant to affect Harley-Davidson Inc., which is based in Wisconsin, the home state of House Speaker Paul D. Ryan) as well as bourbon (from Kentucky, the home state of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell).

For the moment, the trade war has been postponed. But the incident illustrates quite a lot of what is new and different about the transatlantic relationship and indeed about all of America’s relationships with its old allies. The incident also tells us something about how those allies have decided to cope.

For one, everyone understands now that policy, in Trump’s Washington, is often made on a whim — the president’s whim. All of the things that used to help foreigners understand America — knowledge of history, experience in previous negotiations, relationships with senior civil servants and policymakers — no longer help much in making sense of the White House. There is no longer a predictable process for decision-making, or even a process at all: Everything comes down to what the president feels like on a given day.

U.S. allies also understand that even long-standing, previously uncontroversial policies can change from one day to the next. South Koreans were reportedly horrified by a story, a couple of months back, that Trump had suddenly declared that he wanted to withdraw all U.S. troops from the Korean Peninsula; this may be what motivated Seoul to seek an agreement with North Korea, even at the risk of strengthening and emboldening Kim Jong Un. By the same token, Europeans also understand that tariffs can be imposed at any moment, without any particular regard for the long history of European-American friendship, or of the immense value — hundreds of billions of dollars a year — of transatlantic trade.

As a result, U.S. allies are now changing the way they speak to the United States. For one, they now know that all negotiation has to be done face to face, with the president. It’s no good sending envoys, or even foreign ministers, since no one believes America’s diplomats actually have influence in the White House. Hence the appearance of both the president of France and the chancellor of Germany in Washington last week: The idea was to deliver a one-two punch, using different styles — smiling and serious, state visit and working visit, flamboyant French and low-key German — to deliver similar messages on trade as well as on Iran.

U.S. allies also know that any response has to find a way to reach the president directly. There is no substantive reason for the E.U. to put tariffs on bourbon and motorcycles; the only justification is the hope that these kinds of targeted punishments would create problems for congressional Republicans, and thus create a rift between the president and congressional Republicans, in the hope that congressional Republicans would put pressure on the president. That’s it.

What used to be a broad conversation has shrunk and narrowed. Everything is personalized; everything is transactional. There isn’t much discussion of what we can do together, just a show of strength: You hit us, we’ll hit you back. That’s how Europeans have had to learn to deal with Vladimir Putin, the president of Russia, and that’s how they now deal with the United States, too.

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