For close to a year and a half, Trudeau and his counterparts have employed various strategies to try to head off conflict with the volatile American President, from flattery to stonewalling to hours of schmoozing on the golf course. But in recent weeks Trump has confounded their efforts, unleashing a tit-for-tat trade war with allies, blowing up the Iran nuclear deal over European objections, and walking away from a deal with Canada and Mexico to overhaul nafta, all while lavishing praise on the North Korean dictator with whom he hopes to reach an accord next week. Adding insult to injury, Trump even cited an obscure national-security provision to justify the tariffs, as if America’s closest friends had suddenly become its biggest enemies. As a result, the G-7 meeting that Trudeau will host on Friday and Saturday was shaping up to be the most contentious, and possibly the most consequential, since the summits began, in 1975.
Trump’s chief economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, told the White House press corps on Wednesday that this was all just a “family quarrel,” but, if so, it’s one ugly fight. As Kudlow acknowledged the rift, Trudeau and France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, were meeting to plot strategy, and everyone was wondering why Trump, who is often described as averse to face-to-face conflict, had chosen the weeks preceding the annual G-7 summit to punch his allies in the face. In the days leading up to the meeting, Trump had tense phone calls with Trudeau, Britain’s Prime Minister, Theresa May, and Macron, who has been especially humiliated by the series of adverse decisions after flying to Washington to lobby Trump personally. All of them appear to fix blame on Trump himself. “We’ve gotten used to unorthodox behavior from your President,” the Trudeau adviser said.
For his part, Trump seems to relish the confrontation he has unleashed and is spoiling for more. On Thursday morning, the President tweeted that he was “getting ready to go to the G-7 in Canada to fight for our country on Trade,” insisting, as he often does, that “we have the worst trade deals ever made.” But others involved in the summit were preparing for an America more alone than ever before, and now Trump faces the very real risk of allies teaming up against him. “The American president may not mind being isolated, but neither do we mind signing a 6 country agreement if need be,” Macron tweeted pointedly to Trump, in English, later on Thursday. Trump quickly fired back. “Please tell Prime Minister Trudeau and President Macron that they are charging the U.S. massive tariffs and create non-monetary barriers,” the President tweeted. “Look forward to seeing them tomorrow.” Soon after that, the White House said in a statement that Trump would skip the second day of the summit entirely, and it seemed increasingly certain that the traditional joint communiqué signed off on by all seven leaders will be discarded because of Trump. (As of Wednesday, when it would normally be in the final stages of elaborate negotiations, the communiqué was not even being circulated.) Instead, the Trudeau adviser told me, the Canadian Prime Minister, as the summit’s host, was likely simply to release a “statement from the chair,” summarizing the discussions without requiring Trump to approve it. The American President has blundered his way into “opening a four-front-at-least war simultaneously,” the Trudeau adviser said, and now the goal of the summit has become unlike any other that preceded it: “to get allies together to try to contain the amount of damage he’s doing.”
Ever since Trump took office, America’s allies have desperately sought to avoid this moment. Over the last year and a half, though, many of them have come to realize, with growing dread, that it was inevitable. The rift between the world’s great democracies that Trump’s election portended is coming to pass, and it is about far more than Iran policy, obscure trade provisions, or whether Germany spends two per cent of its G.D.P. on nato. Many senior European officials speak of it, as one Ambassador to Washington did to me recently, as nothing less than a “crisis of the West.”
As Trump’s dramatic moves have played out this spring and hardened into a Presidential narrative of American victimization at the hands of free-riding allies, senior government officials in London, Berlin, and other European capitals, and in Washington, have told me they now worry that Trump may be a greater immediate threat to the alliance than even authoritarian great-power rivals, such as Russia and China. Equally striking is the extent to which America’s long-term allies have no real strategy for coping with the challenges posed by such an American President. Trump may be reorienting U.S. foreign policy away from its closest friends, such as Great Britain and Germany, and toward those with whom Trump is more politically aligned in Israel, the Gulf, and along Europe’s restive fringes, but his traditional partners have no real strategy for how to respond.
Last year, the German Foreign Office embarked on what two sources described to me as its first-ever effort to produce an America strategy aimed at answering that question, with the goal of producing a strategy document similar to those it has for adversaries. “Essentially, it’s an overhaul of German foreign policy,” a senior German official told me, “since the key assumption being called into question is the total reliance we have on the friendship with the U.S.” Work on the new strategy began after Trump’s Inauguration but accelerated last spring, after the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, returned from Trump’s initial foray into international summitry rattled by him and announced that “Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands.” The painful realization, the senior German official said, was that “we might get to a situation where we see Americans not only as friends and partners but also as competitors and adversaries. We don’t want to do that. That is how we treat other great powers around the globe, like Russia and China.”
Until now, allies have been notably divided on how to handle Trump, largely settling on an approach that Charles Kupchan, who served as President Barack Obama’s senior director for Europe at the National Security Council, characterized as “limit the damage and run out the clock.” Trump’s recent confrontational moves, however, have made it all but impossible for allies to continue with their policy of “don’t give in but don’t give up,” as Kupchan described it. In interviews in Europe and Washington over the last week, I heard a new tone of anguish and concern as the extent and consequences of the rift have become more clear. “They cruised through 2017 and they thought everything was fine,” Julianne Smith, a former Pentagon official and deputy national-security adviser for Vice-President Joe Biden who now heads the transatlantic program at the Center for a New American Security, told me. “Now he is doing in 2018 what he threatened to do, and it’s ‘Oh, no, I feel the shock and awe’ and ‘What can we do?’ ”
Daniel Vajdich, who served as a foreign-policy adviser to the Republican Presidential candidates Ted Cruz and Scott Walker in the 2016 election, agreed. “There’s no denying that the transatlantic relationship is at a low point in the post-Cold War period,” Vajdich, who is one of two Republicans who defended Trump’s approach in a debate against two Europeans at a security conference in the Estonian capital of Tallinn last week, said. Initially, the session had been titled “Eighteen Months of Trump Foreign Policy: Right Direction or Wrong Track?” Organizers decided they had to change the title because no one could make the case that relations were on the right track after last week’s tariffs decision. Instead, Vajdich’s team was asked to argue that perhaps things were “better than they seemed” under Trump’s foreign policy.
When the reframed debate terms were announced at the event, they drew a laugh from the audience, which was composed largely of European security officials and experts. Constanze Stelzenmüller, the German debater on the panel, compared Trump’s foreign policy to Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” and said the Europeans were the handmaids. As for Trump, she said, the American President seemed to be treating his allies like a girlfriend he could abuse, slapping her around as if that would make her more likely to accept his marriage proposal.
When I went to Berlin after the Tallinn conference, I talked with several German officials who made similar references to personal and familial dysfunction. In their view, Trump’s decision to take on his allies on so many issues all at once is quite different from the standard-issue European policy disputes with the United States, such as the 2003 rift over George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq, or Ronald Reagan’s early nineteen-eighties military buildup against the Soviet Union. Those were differing views over how to protect the alliance; now Trump is questioning the alliance itself. “It’s like your parents questioning their love for you,” Norbert Röttgen, the chairman of the Bundestag’s foreign-affairs committee, told me on Monday. “It’s already penetrated the subconscious.”
Nowhere in Europe has that subconscious been more rocked than in Germany, where its close relationship with the United States has defined the country’s remarkable resurrection after the Second World War. “It took Germany the longest of all partners to come to terms with someone like Trump becoming President,” the senior German official told me. “We were very emotional, because our relationship with America is so emotional—it’s more of a son-father relationship—and we didn’t recognize our father anymore and realized he might beat us.” Only in recent weeks, he said, after Trump reorganized his foreign-policy team, replacing his Secretary of State and national-security adviser with the more like-minded Mike Pompeo and John Bolton and launching his trade war, did they finally get that “this is real. And still many people haven’t come to grips with the idea that Trump is not considering us an ally and as a son but maybe even as adversary.”
As we spoke, the latest controversy was reinforcing the idea that Germany was no longer America’s favored ally. Trump had named Richard Grenell, a Republican activist well known for his aggressive Twitter spats and dismissive views, to be the new U.S. Ambassador to Germany, and he, even before meeting his German hosts, had just given an interview to the right-wing Web site Breitbart praising the European far right; the headline suggested he saw it as his job to “empower” such leaders. Grenell later insisted on Twitter that his remarks had been misconstrued, but not before some German politicians called for him to be kicked out and the German Foreign Office asked for a formal clarification of his comments. The fracas had a certain Trumpian irrelevance, but a more consequential rebuke came in a speech this week at the conservative Heritage Foundation, in Washington, where the Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, A. Wess Mitchell, outlined a new strategy toward the Continent that suggested a shift away from longtime allies, such as France and Germany, and toward newcomers in Central and Eastern Europe, where Trump-style populism flourishes and democratic norms are being challenged.
Still, Röttgen, like Merkel herself, remains wary of outright confrontation with the Trump Administration over these policies, even as the German public becomes increasingly disillusioned. “We should choose the option of damage limitation instead of escalation,” Röttgen told me. “Trump might force us to become more confrontational, but we should try to resist.” How bad has it already gotten? A recent poll found that only fourteen per cent of Germans now believe the United States is a reliable partner, compared with thirty-six per cent in Russia and forty-three per cent in China.
A year ago, after Trump returned from his first Presidential trip overseas with deeply unsettled allies in Europe, his national-security adviser, H. R. McMaster, and his chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn, teamed up to write a reassuring op-ed in the Wall Street Journal. “America First is not America alone,” they promised. Neither of the two men still works for Trump. A few months after that, Trump himself made an appearance before the rattled global financial élites at the World Economic Forum, in Davos. “America First is not America alone,” he insisted. Now, increasingly, it is.