World War I is considered to be the first European war to see major US involvement. That’s why it’s ironic that at last weekend’s ceremony marking the end of that war, Donald Trump made it clear that his administration has no interest in maintaining a constructive relationship with European countries.
Trump’s Twitter tirade early Tuesday was aimed at his host during his recent overseas trip, French President Emmanuel Macron. It shows — in typical Trump fashion — that he is still nursing a grudge over the criticism directed his way by Macron both during his speech on Armistice Day and in subsequent TV interviews. Trump’s lack of empathy for the victims of two of Europe’s bloodiest wars came across loud and clear in his tweet saying, “They were starting to learn German in Paris before the U.S. came along. Pay for NATO or not!” This is a scandalous reference to the World War II Nazi occupation of France, where the French were systematically oppressed by Hitler’s Germany.
Europe, unsurprisingly, is sensitive about its two world wars. Having taken hundreds of millions of lives over the span of about 30 years, the wars left a lasting mark on the continent and shaped the entirety of its modern identity. It is difficult to expect a president who cannot even be bothered to make the trip to honor his own fallen countrymen in France to understand this.
Trump seemed surprised — even slighted — by Macron’s statement that Europe should consider setting up a military defense independent of the United States. Trump shouldn’t have been surprised — he has spent a good part of his presidency attacking NATO as well as unilaterally pulling out of key deals that directly endanger European safety and security.
This includes the Iran nuclear deal, which the European states have since scrambled to maintain. In an attempt to salvage the accord, European governments have had to come up with ways to circumvent the US sanctions, reimposed after Trump’s withdrawal from the deal. The US dominance in the global financial system and the integrated nature of the US and European banking sectors have called for extraordinary measures. At the UN General Assembly in September, the European Union’s foreign affairs head, Federica Mogherini, announced that the EU was considering setting up a new legal entity, known as a special purpose vehicle, to facilitate financial transactions with Iran in order to deliver on the commitments made in the Iran deal.
Walking away from the Iran deal wasn’t the only slap in the face delivered by the Trump administration. The ease with which he announced his withdrawal from the Paris climate accords, an agreement whose wording stresses the urgency with which climate change needs to be countered on a global level, has not been forgotten. Macron since has announced that France will not enter into commercial trade deals with countries that do not respect the agreement.
Finally, there is the withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty. In his latest tit for tat with Russia — or perhaps show of strength on the home front amid persistent accusations of leniency toward President Vladimir Putin — Trump and his national security adviser, John Bolton, announced their intention to pull out of a deal signed toward the end of the Cold War with the sole purpose of preventing a European theater of war should nuclear weapons be deployed. Europe, found between two nuclear superpowers, saw this agreement as a guarantee that its population wouldn’t be blown to smithereens should things escalate between the United States and Russia. Instead of relegating nuclear war to the past, it has forced some European countries to think about expanding or developing their own nuclear arsenal.
On a symbolic level, Trump’s rhetoric — his statement that he was a nationalist, revealing his blatant ignorance of the destructive nature nationalism has had in European and global history — hits close to home as European nations try to stave off the increase in support for far-right movements in their countries. European Council President Donald Tusk, whose native Poland saw supporters of the far right march alongside their military parade marking 100 years of the country’s independence, didn’t mince words in a speech on Saturday.
“For the first time in history we have an American administration that is, to put it mildly, not enthusiastic about a united and strong Europe,” Tusk said. While the various crises that European countries are currently facing cannot and should not be blamed on the approach of the current US administration, Trump’s reluctance to treat European leaders as equal partners has made it much more difficult for them to rein in those who are seemingly energized by what Tusk described as “Washington’s further steps towards isolationism.”
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Una Hajdari is the 2018 Elizabeth Neuffer fellow at the International Women’s Media Foundation and a research fellow at MIT’s Center for International Studies.