WASHINGTON ― At first glance, it looks like the Great Disrupter, Donald Trump, is out to destroy the Atlantic Alliance, which has more or less kept the peace in Europe since World War II.
Trump regularly trashes NATO, picks fights with leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, allows his administration to leak damaging intel and fawns over the archenemy of European democratic unity, Russian President Vladimir Putin.
But if the Europeans are frightened, conversations with key diplomats here don’t reflect it. First, they think the president is more tweeter than tough guy, playing to the nativist base that won him the Electoral College and therefore the White House.
Just as important, if not more so, their sophisticated contacts with key officials and members of Congress allow them to reassure themselves that, whatever Trump’s bluster, the alliance will sail on in the name of European democratic capitalism, even if ― as most now expect ― the president makes the dramatic gesture of pulling out of the Paris Accord on climate change.
Above all, the Europeans, especially those reared there during the Cold War, believe in the enduring strength of U.S. institutions ― more so, it seems, than all too many Americans do.
Despite her spats with Trump, Merkel is such a one, German Ambassador to the U.S. Peter Witting told me in an interview.
The key thing to the 62-year-old chancellor is that she grew up in Soviet-controlled East Germany, he said.
“Especially growing up there, she saw the United States as a beacon of freedom.
“Because of that, she grew up as I did, as what we called in Germany a ‘transatlanticist,’ believing in American leadership and in close ties between us and Europe the United States.
“And that is why she feels also the need to speak candidly about differences. There are a number of issues on which Trump has engaged that are of concern. One area, obviously, is climate change.”
Even on climate change, said another top European official here, there may be more room to maneuver in America than Trump realizes.
“I know that many cities and states, and nongovernmental entities, are committed to action on climate here in America, and we support that and will continue to,” said this diplomat, who asked to speak anonymously to avoid alienating Trumpians in the White House.
On other topics, another diplomat said, Europeans have learned that a Trump tweet or blurt does not necessarily mean administration, let alone American, policy will change.
“And in so many places and departments, there are no people,” said this person, who also requested anonymity. “There is no one for us to talk to or to take action.”
Where there are people in place, Europeans here are generally reassured by them, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, national security adviser H.R. McMaster and Defense Secretary James Mattis.
Trump says something that sounds very warlike about North Korea, but then we noticed that Wall Street barely reacted. We learned a lot from that.
Whether the diplomats are being naïve or suspending disbelief about this trio is a big question, but the professions of faith in them sound genuine.
“Trump says something that sounds very warlike about North Korea, but then we noticed that Wall Street barely reacted,” said one of the diplomats. “We learned a lot from that.”
Europeans do worry about several Trump themes. One of them is his demand that they beef up their defense budgets ― something they have been avoiding for decades by praising American might.
They are especially annoyed that the U.S. president claims they “owe” money to NATO. In fact, these countries pay for the alliance; the issue is how much they can afford to spend on their own national defense.
“He makes this issue sound like country club dues,” said one diplomat. “It has nothing to do with that.”
The trade issue is aggravating, especially to the Germans, who have invested heavily in the U.S. and actually boost American exports made in their many manufacturing plants here.
But while they expect haggling, they don’t envision a breakdown or trade war on this administration’s watch. “There is too much direct investment in the U.S., and Trump understands that, or eventually will understand it,” said one European here.
On climate change, Merkel felt the obligation to directly dispute the president, Witting said.
Merkel was speaking for local consumption, not for Washington.
Over there, European leaders, led by Merkel, have taken note of Trump’s isolationist, protectionist, xenophobic and climate-denying rhetoric and expressed their displeasure and determination now to go it alone.
In a widely noted campaign speech in Germany over the weekend, she appealed to national pride and European solidarity at the same time.
“The times when we could fully count on others are over, to a certain extent. I have experienced this in the last few days,” she said, referring to the Group of 7 meeting and the climate change issue.
“We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands, of course in friendship with the United States, in friendship with Great Britain, with other neighbors wherever possible, also with Russia. But we must know that we need to fight for our future ourselves, as Europeans, for our destiny.”
Trump replied, as he always does, with an angry and threatening tweet that changed the subject:
The betting here is that it won’t change, or certainly not at the pace Trump wants.
Witting downplayed the dispute.
“She has called before for Europe to take its fate in its own hands,” he said. “This isn’t new. It’s part of what being a transatlanticist is about.”