One less adult in the room

Rex Tillerson received a frosty welcome in Europe last week. But the old continent has not yet formulated a practical response to Trump’s foreign policy.

Pity Rex Tillerson. Sure, he has a big job, a massive staff that caters to his every whim, and a government plane to take him wherever he wants to go. But when he gets there, he is still Donald Trump’s Secretary of State.

This week his plane delivered him to Europe, where he made stops in Brussels, Paris, and Vienna. Europe is usually a congenial trip for American Secretaries of State. The welcome is generous, the English is comprehensible, and the food is spectacular. Secretary of State John Kerry enjoyed the scene so that much that he took nine trips just to France in his final year in office. By contrast, this was Tillerson’s first trip there as Secretary.

One can understand why. As ever in Tillerson’s increasingly humiliating year, his trip had been pre-sabotaged by the antics of his boss. The week before, Trump had re-tweeted anti-Muslim hate videos from an extremist British group, then attacked the British Prime Minister on twitter for daring to criticize him. On Wednesday, he upended years of American policy and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, to near unanimous condemnation across Europe.

Meanwhile, back in DC, the White House was spreading rumours that Tillerson has lost the confidence of the President and is on his way out. The betting is he will leave office soon after the New Year. For most in Europe, Tillerson is a dead man walking.

Flogging a dead secretary

As a result, his reception alternated between indifferent and downright hostile. Federica Mogherini, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Affairs, seemed intent on profiting from his powerlessness to take out her frustrations with Trump’s foreign policy. In their press conference she blasted the administration’s policy on Iran and Jerusalem, among other issues. Standing awkwardly at her side, Tillerson looked like he was in a hostage video, forced at bureaucratic gunpoint to robotically defend policies made by someone he considers a moron (or worse). 

Yet, other than taking pot-shots at the carcass of Tillerson’s time in office, it’s not clear that Europeans have a policy response to the potentially radical nature of the Trump presidency. Beyond the rhetoric, European leaders have not really altered their approach to the United States at all.

Adults in the room

They seem to believe that the Trump presidency is, from a policy standpoint, contained. They continue to adhere to the so-called “adults-in-the-room” theory – that the generals and Republican establishment figures that surround Trump will blunt his worst instincts. Trump may commit any number of outrages on twitter, but American policy toward Europe will remain as it has always been. Europeans need only condemn the outrages and otherwise continue as normal.

Alas, as Tillerson’s unhappy life demonstrates, the President of the United States does matter.  The reason that the adults-in-the-room theory has worked at all this year is because Trump doesn’t really care about most foreign policy issues, particularly with regard to Europe.  His few forays into the international arena – including the withdrawal from the Paris Climate Change accord, his decision to decertify the Iran nuclear deal, and the Jerusalem decision – stem from a desire to deliver on campaign promises important to his domestic political base.

Watch this space

But American presidencies have a trajectory. The last several presidents have entered office intent on making their mark in domestic policy.  But after a year or two, they discover that the powers of the presidency are limited in domestic affairs and that Congress is extremely difficult to deal with. They generally end up retreating into foreign policy, where the powers of the presidency are vast and where they can hope to find clear-cut “wins”.

As Trump nears the conclusion of his efforts at tax reform, it appears that he has no further domestic agenda that has much chance of passage. If the Democrats take one of the Congressional chambers in the November 2018 election, his domestic agenda will grind to a screeching halt.

At that point, Trump will turn his full, albeit peripatetic, attention to foreign policy. He will, if necessary, hire people who share his views to replace the current adults.  It will not be hard to find them: Senator Tom Cotton and CIA Director Mike Pompeo, among others, are already signalling to the President that they will do his bidding in a way that Tillerson resisted.

Trump will probably focus on Iran and North Korea – and do so in ways that threaten peace in both of those regions. He will also turn back to the trade agenda, where he already has like-minded cadres in place, to push for a ‘better deal’ from NAFTA, China, and the World Trade Organization.

Confronting Trump

Is Europe ready for Trump to seize the reins of power from the adults? Mostly not, but developments in Germany bear watching. As my colleague Ulrike Franke demonstrates, German public opinion on the United States has certainly shifted since Trump took over. Germans now see Trump as a bigger problem than authoritarian leaders in North Korea, Russia or Turkey.

Europeans do have options to confront this problem. On Iran, for example, my colleague Ellie Geranmayeh has outlined approaches to help Europe maintain the Iran nuclear deal should the United States abandon it.

German leaders have been slow to turn anti-Trump sentiment into policy. But German foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel gave an intriguing speech last week, in which he explicitly questioned whether the U.S. might become a competitor. He outlined that Germany and the EU need to define their own interests and draw red lines on, for example, U.S. sanctions on Russia that threaten German energy interests.

The speech may be just more rhetoric. But Chancellor Merkel expressed similar sentiments during the recent election. With Merkel and Gabriel’s parties looking like they will form the next German government, it is also possible that the most powerful country in Europe is finally starting to consider how to manage a post-American Europe.

It is past time to do so. The alliance will always be important to both sides, and Europe is still America’s friend, of course.  But as the sad saga of Rex Tillerson shows, Donald Trump isn’t very nice even to his friends.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Research Director
Director, US Programme

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