Just because Trump has no strategic purpose in his trip doesn’t mean it can’t have a strategic result.
He’s back. U.S. President Donald Trump is returning to Europe, with two trips in July to three countries: Poland, Germany, and France. His first trip went so badly that it nearly broke the Atlantic Alliance and caused German Chancellor Angela Merkel to state publicly that Europe could no longer rely on the United States. So, you’re perhaps asking yourself why Trump would return so quickly to a continent that plainly loathes him, and to which he readily returns the favour?
But if you are asking that, you are clearly not Donald Trump. Trump is many things: he is a blatant misogynist, a serial liar, a casual racist, and a very questionable dresser. But most of all he is a narcissist. And narcissists have enormous confidence, want desperately to be loved, and don’t give up easily. These traits, for all their downsides, made Donald Trump president. He won’t change them any time soon. Indeed, seventy-one-year-old narcissists who have recently become the most powerful person in the world generally don’t change at all.
So, the simple answer is that narcissism is why Trump is returning. According to U.S. government sources, Trump wants to come back to Europe specifically because he seems to believe he can win over Europe and even its leaders. Of course, the original purpose of the trip was to attend the G-20 meeting in Hamburg. But Trump himself asked for additional stops where he could charm the European public as he has the American.
Impossible, you scoff; Trump is less popular in Europe than Vladimir Putin, and Putin is a ruthless autocrat that regularly invades European countries. Trump would simply retort that “they” said similar things about the American public when he declared his candidacy. And now he is President and you are not. He will go to Europe and the crowds will adore him. So there.
Of course, Trump’s staff is less certain that he will receive a rapturous welcome. They are sending him to Poland for his big speech (in front of the memorial to the Warsaw Uprising of 1944), specifically because they hope for a better reception there - both from the public and the government - than they would get in Western Europe. The Polish government is sympathetic to both Trump’s populist messages and his clash with Germany.
The United States, especially under Republican presidents, is usually more popular in Eastern Europe than in Western Europe. At the height of his unpopularity abroad, in June 2007, George W. Bush went to the deeply un-strategic US ally of Albania for similar reasons. The cheering public reception he received played well at home, even if one of the adoring Albanian masses did steal his watch.
Regardless of the fate of Trump’s accessories, the key point to take away is that Trump is coming back to Europe to look popular at home, to soak in some public adulation, and to demonstrate to domestic audiences that he can succeed on foreign trips. He is not coming to repair his administration’s relationship with Europe, to advance any policy agenda, or to take sides in any intra-European dispute.
This is not an explanation that anyone in Europe is keen to accept. European officials of course do not want to see themselves as props in Trump’s personal or political soap opera. They prefer to see a grander strategy in which their country, and Trump’s visit to it, plays a pivotal role.
Polish officials believe Trump is coming to attend their Three Seas Initiative, which seeks to create a new Central European economic space between the Baltic, Black, and Adriatic Seas. They believe Trump wants to demonstrate his unhappiness with Germany, to form a special bilateral relationship with Poland’s like-minded government, and to conclude liquefied natural gas (LNG) deals into the newly-opened Central European markets. Sources in Washington, in contrast, say Trump had never heard of the Three Seas Initiative when the decision was made to go to Poland and the contacts never mentioned LNG.
German and French officials, by contrast, worry that Trump is seeking, in Rumsfeldian terms, to drive a wedge between “old” and “new” Europe. Once divided, he will be able to pressure them more easily on trade and climate, or even make geopolitical deals over their heads with Vladimir Putin at the G-20. In Washington, officials vehemently deny either of these motives. And indeed, the Americans don’t need a presidential visit to divide Germany from Poland – those two are creating plenty of division on their own. Meanwhile, the president is under too much political pressure over Russia to launch any new initiatives.
Still, this attitude is understandable, or at least commonplace. One of the most peculiar aspects of the bizarre Trump presidency is that every crazy thing he does is instantly retrofitted into an elaborate strategy. Thus, for example, when Trump accidentally re-wrote America’s four-decade-old Taiwan policy in a December 2016 phone call, it launched a thousand commentaries on the Trump administration’s brilliant strategy to gain leverage on China. But afterward, Trump admitted he hadn’t even known about the call until an hour before it happened. And when the Trump administration took office, he returned to the previous policy.
Overall, these imagined strategies tell us more about the wishes and fears of the people that invent them than about Trump’s policy. Sometimes, as Sigmund Freud supposedly said, a cigar is just a cigar. In Trump’s case, a dyspeptic tweet tapped out from the presidential toilet at 4am is just a tweet. It is not a strategy, or even a coherent thought that he will necessarily hold tomorrow.
But just because Trump has no strategic purpose in his trip doesn’t mean it can’t have a strategic result. After all, the Trump administration didn’t intend to create a crisis between the GCC and Qatar when Trump went to Saudi Arabia, but his inadvertent greenlight to the Saudis (whose leaders probably thought he was there for that purpose) precipitated just that. Now they stand on the brink of a regional war.
On this trip, one can see two opportunities for that kind of inadvertent crisis. First, Trump could easily become enamored in the moment with the prospect of LNG export deals with Poland. After all, he loves fossil fuels, he loves exports, and he loves deals—so what’s not to like? The fact that endorsing this somewhat quixotic Polish effort would drive a wedge between Poland and Germany—and, oddly, annoy Russia by calling into question the NordStream 2 gas pipeline—would probably not occur to Trump in all the excitement. His team would spend their next stop in Hamburg explaining what the President “really meant” while trying to calm angry Germans and vengeful Russians.
Second, Trump could get pissed off by the nearly inevitable protests that will accompany his visit to Germany and France. The authorities are trying to ensure these protests don’t get anywhere within earshot of Trump, but it is hard to guarantee. Moreover, Trump will probably find some time to watch American cable news, which will certainly cover any such protests. And since showing that he has the love of the European people was a main purpose of this trip, he may well become frustrated by those images and lash out at his hosts. With President Erdogan of Turkey next to him, Trump might even get the idea to tell the secret service to beat up some protestors.
And all that is without even mentioning the meeting with Putin, scheduled for the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hamburg. The very prospect of that meeting has both American and European officials quivering with nerves. Given the domestic pressures on Trump due to the Russian hacking scandal, it seems almost inconceivable that his team has dreamt up any sort dramatic initiative for this meeting. But the very prospect of the impressionable Trump in a room with Putin is the kind of nightmare scenario that will keep U.S. and European officials awake for months.
Of course, none of this is to predict that any sort of crisis will result from Trump’s visit. Rather, it is to highlight that the essence of the trip, and indeed of the Trump presidency, is its unpredictability. Like his presidency, this trip to Europe is not really intended to shake things up in a meaningful way. It is just a vehicle for his personal grandiosity. But the President’s volatile temperament and rash gullibility could easily provoke a crisis anyway.