SOMEONE MUST HAVE packed a Tee-ball set aboard Air Force One for Donald Trump’s first foreign trip. How else could our juvenile president think that “we hit a home run no matter where we [were]”?
In fact, this was buffoonery abroad, an embarrassment to America.
Consider: Trump managed to sour our relationship with Germany, one of our cornerstone allies for the last half-century. Thus Angela Merkel, now arguably the leader of the Western world, is pointedly saying that Europe can no longer rely on the United States.
And who can blame her for voicing those sentiments, when Trump still hasn’t fully embraced NATO, still hasn’t come to grips with the scientific reality of climate change, and still persists in hectoring Germany in a ridiculously reductionist way about its trade surplus with the United States?
NATO members have reason to hope for more. In mid-April, Trump walked back some campaign-trail blather by declaring NATO was no longer obsolete.
Still, at NATO headquarters, he couldn’t bring himself to reaffirm the mutual defense pledge at the core of the West’s most important post-war alliance. Instead, he lectured our NATO allies about their defense spending, an issue Trump either misunderstands or misrepresents. The president asserted that “23 of the 28 member nations are still not paying what . . . they are supposed to be paying for their defense” and “that many of these nations owe massive amounts of money from past years.” That situation, said Trump, was “not fair to the people and taxpayers of the United States.”
In fact, despite the way Trump makes it sound, it’s not as though those NATO members owe this country or NATO billions or are somehow otherwise in arrears. NATO members agreed in 2014 to move toward spending 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024. Members have generally been making progress, albeit slowly, toward that goal. Here what’s called for is a gentle push, not a cattle prod. But a cattle prod is about the only tool in the box of Trump’s Dollar Store foreign policy.
It’s the same instrument he’s using to address Germany’s trade surplus with the United States. Now, it’s hugely unlikely Trump intended to say that Germany or Germans were evil, as some early reports had it. However, his team acknowledges that he said Germany, which sells us $114 billion of goods and services each year while buying some $49 billion from us, was “very bad” on trade.
Trump’s obsession here is with cars. Yes, Germany is a net exporter of vehicles to the United States. But this is not a case of a third-world country that undersells US manufacturers by paying its workers low wages. Or one that systematically excludes US cars. Rather, Germany is a high-wage western democracy that makes status vehicles some Americans clearly want to drive.
Further, though it’s true that German automakers have or are building plants in Mexico, German carmakers also employ some 33,000 workers in US factories. Take BMW. Its single largest factory in the world is actually in Spartanburg, S.C., where it assembled some 411,000 vehicles in 2016. Given that BMW sold some 365,000 vehicles in this country, it was not just a net car exporter from the United States, but the largest such exporter.
Yes, it would be better for the United States if the Euro were stronger vis-a-vis the dollar. But that’s a complicated economic calculus, and Germany is hardly the only player there. Which is to say, this is not an issue that an able, intelligent, forbearing leader would address via insulting comments or revenge tweets.
Trump, however, doesn’t do complexity. Or subtlety. And his political storyline is only loosely tethered to reality. Whatever Trump thinks, this excursion wasn’t a home run, but rather a succession of foul bawls.Scot Lehigh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.