Lucky are the foreign ministers of very small, very consensus-driven countries, for those who play their cards right sometimes get to hold office for many years. One of the luckiest card players out there is Jean Asselborn, the amusing polyglot who has been the foreign minister of Luxembourg since 2004. Although his country is tiny (population 613,000), the longevity of Luxembourg’s top diplomat gives him the confidence to say what he thinks—even if it is, well, undiplomatic. Last week, following the insurrection in Washington, D.C., Asselborn did exactly that: “Trump is a criminal,” he told RTL, his country’s public broadcaster. “A political pyromaniac who should be sent to criminal court. He’s a person who was elected democratically but who isn't interested in democracy in the slightest.”
Nor did Asselborn stop there. “The 6th of January 2021 was a 9/11 attack on democracy itself, and Trump was the one who egged it on,” he said in Luxembourgish. “The people who are truly responsible are Trump and members of the GOP. People like Ted Cruz and other elected Republicans are responsible because they acted like Trump's poodles.” Not too long after that, Mike Pompeo, the American secretary of state, abruptly canceled a trip to Luxembourg and Belgium that was meant to be his last trip to Europe. A New York Times account implied that Asselborn’s comments triggered the decision.
I called Asselborn to ask him what he thought about all of this. He apologized for his English (“I have to speak Luxembourgish in the morning, read the papers in German, talk to diplomats in French and now to you in English. It’s a lot.”) and was somewhat bemused by the fuss, but agreed to a brief interview. The following transcript has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Anne Applebaum: So what happened?
Jean Asselborn: Nothing, really. The U.S. ambassador in Luxembourg told us that Pompeo has a meeting with [NATO Secretary General] Jens Stoltenberg on the 14th, and that he would like to stop by Luxembourg too. We were waiting to hear details. And then Sunday evening we were told Pompeo will not come.
Applebaum: Do you know why?
Asselborn: Nobody spoke with me, but The New York Times seems to think it was my comments, so that must be the reason. We also heard that in Brussels they were planning to meet with him, but without any press conference or public statement; maybe that bothered him too? I did call Trump Brandstifter, pyromane—I think it means “pyromaniac” in English. From my side, this is correct, and I will not correct this.
Applebaum: Had you met Pompeo before?
Asselborn: I met him once in Washington and saw him several times in Europe. It was never easy with him.
Applebaum: What does that mean?
Asselborn: I heard Trump twice at the UN General Assembly, both times speaking about this wrong idea of patriotism. It was—ugh—awful. In the 1930s, in Europe, we learned where this wrong patriotism can go. We never understood it. A big majority in the EU never understood it. But Pompeo was always repeating this too.
Applebaum: He was an emissary of Trumpism?
Asselborn: He was somebody who defended the positions of Trump. Very difficult cooperation with him. Pompeo is really one of the last pillars of Trump. In a week, it will be better.
Applebaum: What lasting damage did the Trump administration do?
Asselborn: I am not defending Iran. On human rights, Iran is catastrophic. But we negotiated with them for 13 years, and finally in 2015 we got the deal that Iran could not build nuclear weapons. The idea was to engage and change this regime. I was twice in Iran, in 2015 and 2016—young people expected something from the free world; now that is all destroyed. Trump destroyed this. He destroyed solidarity with the Paris climate agreement. He did all of these aggressive things on trade. He left the World Health Organization.
I don’t know of one positive thing on foreign policy that has come out of EU-U.S. cooperation during the past four years. I don’t see one single positive thing. It would be healthy to have again a president and a secretary of state who understand the past, the history of the European Union, who know that before World War II we had exactly this wrong sort of patriotism, nationalism, racism. The EU was created to help us to overcome this wrong patriotism.
Applebaum: Are you sorry you won’t get to speak to Pompeo?
Asselborn: I am willing to meet with any foreign minister, from anywhere. But maybe it’s not a bad thing that he won’t be in Belgium and Luxembourg.
Applebaum: What do you see happening over the next four years?
Asselborn: Maybe EU-U.S. cooperation will function once again. Maybe we can start jointly trying to solve some problems in the world. Maybe, also, we in Europe can help the Americans overcome these divisions in their own country. Differences inside the U.S. are so large not because of the two parties, but because people have come to adopt different values. Europe has experience with this problem. Maybe Europe can bring you some support.
Applebaum: You have an hour’s extra time tomorrow—what will you do with it?
Asselborn: Ha! Maybe ride a bike.