Prime Minister Angela Merkel has come and gone just like Theresa May, Bibi Netanyahu, and Shinzo Abe. One has a sense they all have walked away from meeting America’s new president with totally enigmatic assessments of who is Donald Trump. While there were no major upsets or crises that appear to have emerged from these meetings—unlike some of Trump’s international telephone calls—it is unclear where this new Administration wants to go on the international stage.
What exactly does the President have in mind when he speaks of “America First”?
Does Trump really want to withdraw from international involvements and what does that mean on a practical level?
What are the economic consequences of pursuing a policy of disengagement and protectionism for international agreements in Europe, in the Far East, and in America’s hemisphere?
Is the Trump Administration seriously prepared to discontinue or dramatically reduce America’s participation in the world: on a unilateral basis, on U.S. participation in international forums, and on significant treaty obligations?
Why are the requested military increases so dramatic? Are they strictly for upgraded equipment and to bully America’s allies to pay a larger share of defense alliance costs?
What is Trump’s image of the U.S.’s role on the international stage?
What is the President’s sense of cost benefits to the U.S. if the decline of foreign imports negatively impact American manufactures’ ability to sell abroad?
Who is running the foreign policy show and what are his/her/their core beliefs?
Does the Trump Administration truly believe that America can walk away or abrogate international agreements without suffering any consequences?
For how long will international leaders tolerate the Trumpian model of leadership without there being serious consequences to the U.S. in the international community?
Into this set of questions one also must consider how serious are the populist trends which were so noticeable in the Trump election campaign; which have spilled over on to the Trump domestic agenda; and which appear to be part of the foreign policy-national security program evolving from the Trump White House. Following the British vote on Brexit and the Trump election, there was a general notion that the Netherlands last week would follow suit and select Geert Wilders as Prime Minister. The extreme nationalist lost and now the world waits to see if National Front leader Marine Le Pen will succeed to lead France, with the first round of elections on April 23 and a run-off then scheduled for May 7. Finally, on September 23, in the German elections Angela Merkel will try to hold off the threat from the growing right wing.
All of this is a source of great uncertainty and presents a serious leadership vacuum. Americans as well as international leaders will need to watch Trump very carefully. By the time the G-20 meeting concludes in Hamburg on July 7-8—including the likely first Trump-Putin meeting–the world will have gotten a full dose of Trump operating on the international stage; having begun in May with the G-7 meeting in Italy on the 26-27 likely to be followed by the NATO Conference in Brussels. It is clear now that no one is able to foresee with certainly what will be the Trump style; except that he may truly like being unpredictable.