President Trump’s first overseas trip was marked by sharp contrasts. The man who proposed a total ban on Muslims entering the United States was well received in the center of the Sunni Muslim world, where he praised Islam and politely asked for their help. But the president was not well received in Europe, where he criticized our democratic allies, especially Germany.
Overall, the trip was both positive and problematic. The positives were the president’s change of tone on the international effort to combat terrorism and his effort to encourage negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. The negatives were his self-defeating approach to our European allies and his failure to commit to the Paris agreement on climate change.
ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other terrorist organizations want the struggle in which they are engaged to be, and to be seen as, a worldwide conflict between Islam and the West, led by the United States. Unfortunately, Trump’s rhetoric and actions, during the campaign and in the early months of his presidency, played right into that narrative. He effectively confirmed the ISIS description of the conflict.
But that view is inaccurate and contrary to the interests of the United States. In fact, as the president accurately stated in Saudi Arabia, the conflict involves a violent extremist minority of Muslims against the majority of Muslims and the West. The welcome reversal of the president’s rhetoric on the conflict will enable us to work with, rather than alienate, the vast majority of Muslims who reject the violence and nihilism of ISIS and other such groups.
Of the 7.5 billion people on earth, about one in five is Muslim. By 2060, as the population edges toward 10 billion, one in three will be Muslim — over 3 billion. Alienating such a large segment of the world population with inaccurate and inflammatory rhetoric is unwise and counterproductive.
The Muslim world is riven by internal conflicts, the oldest and deepest of which is the divide between Sunni and Shia. That division, along with other sectarian, political, and ethnic issues, underlies the current conflicts in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen, with catastrophic consequences for the people of those countries.
Indeed, the populations of Muslim-majority countries bear the brunt of terrorist incidents and are at the forefront of the global fight against terrorism. The president’s more conventional outline of the conflict while in Saudi Arabia will therefore be crucial in the coming decades as the conflict intensifies.
In the days he spent in Jerusalem and Ramallah the president restated his commitment to “get a deal” between Israel and the Palestinians. The warm embrace he received from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as well as his meeting with the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, establish a positive atmosphere, although the parties remain far apart on all of the crucial issues. Additionally, circumstances in the region continue to evolve in a way that may also help make possible what so far has not been possible. Iran’s continuing efforts to expand its influence in the region appears to have persuaded the Gulf Arab states and Israel of the need for cooperation. The Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative, although now 15 years old, may have renewed relevance. Unfortunately, mistrust and hostility between Israelis and Palestinians has risen, and belief in the possibility of a two-state solution is declining in both societies, though no there is no realistic alternative. As the president has acknowledged, reaching an agreement won’t be easy, but an effort must be made.
Had the president flown home directly from the Middle East, his trip would widely have been judged as successful. But he stopped in Europe, and there the result was unfortunate. All of the NATO nations have agreed to increase their spending on defense by 2024 to 2 percent of their gross domestic product. Only five European nations have so far reached that target, but others are moving in the right direction. Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama urged them to increase their spending on defense, and Trump did so on this visit. But Trump is the first American president to couple the demand with a threat to not honor the NATO commitment to come to the defense of any member nation that is attacked. That commitment has been triggered only once: following 9/11, when NATO’s European members honored their commitment to the United States.
After the devastation of World War II, the United States led the effort to secure the peace and to promote stability and prosperity by creating new military, economic, and political institutions and alliances: the United Nations, the European Union, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank. Although these institutions dealt with a wide range of issues they were at heart a massive peace project, which has been largely successful in Europe.
We derive significant benefits from these alliances, through increased trade, close military and intelligence cooperation, and a steep reduction in those nations that may otherwise be induced by our rivals to work against our interests. The president’s refusal in Brussels to clearly affirm the US commitment to NATO was insulting to our closest allies and contrary to our interests.
The most important outcome of the president’s trip took place Thursday. In each of his European stops, he was strongly urged to affirm the US commitment to the Paris agreement, the global effort to combat the severe environmental, economic, and national security consequences of climate change. Pope Francis, President Emmanuel Macron of France, and Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany were among those who took turns trying to convince Trump that climate change is not a hoax; it is a threat to all countries and all peoples. They did not succeed. The president’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement is momentous and will dictate history’s judgment on his first overseas trip.
That judgment will be strongly negative. The president defied the overwhelming weight of scientific evidence. He signaled to the world a retreat by the United States from its world leadership on important international issues. He greatly enhanced the prospect of Chinese domination of the huge economic benefits that will flow from the world’s inevitable transition to clean energy. His decision closes the book on his first overseas trip in a negative and depressing way.
George J. Mitchell was the US Senate majority leader from 1989 to 1995 and US special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011. Alon Sachar was an adviser to the special envoy for Middle East peace from 2009 to 2011 and to the US ambassador to Israel from 2011 to 2012. They are authors of “A Path To Peace – A Brief History of the Israeli-Palestinian Negotiations and a Way Forward in the Middle East.”