America first is America alone: US President Donald Trump becomes an increasingly isolated figure on world stage
Trump’s claim to be the guardian of Western values was further undermined by a press conference that included sustained attacks on the free press and a downplaying of Russia’s election interference
During a difficult visit to Europe, US President Donald Trump appeared out of sync with traditional allies, struggling to show that unorthodox strategies toward rival powers Russia and China can deliver results.
At one point Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel exchanged a knowing glance as the US president veered off on another tangent.
What were to be remarks about women entrepreneurs had become a Trumpian soliloquy on his daughter Ivanka’s merits and his paternal failings.
“If she weren’t my daughter it would be so much easier for her,” Trump said. “It might be the only bad thing going for her.”
Watch: Trump meets Putin in Germany
A few feet away, Merkel and Trudeau’s nervy laughs were corporal acknowledgement that Trump’s political peers are still unsure how to take the mercurial 71-year-old.
Throughout the meeting there was a sense the president of the US, leader of the so-called indispensable nation, has shifted positions, leaving everyone else struggling to correct.
In Warsaw, on the first stop of his four day trip, Trump sought to reassert his claim to lead the free world.
Like a king riding along the cavalry frontline, he sounded the charge against terrorism and bureaucracy, which he painted as threats to Christian civilisation. He embraced allies by affirming his commitment to Nato’s mutual defence clause, satisfying long-standing demands to be clearer about the alliance.
But for many, Trump’s idea of the West as a group of nations that “cry out ‘We want God’” – a West of high borders and fierce nationalism – seemed out of kilter with the times.
“It is no accident that he gave this speech to a country with an ultra-conservative and Eurosceptic government,” said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution.
“The great risk [is that Trump’s remarks] begin dividing Europe into old and new – or those who don’t like him and his message and those who do.”
Trump’s claim to be the guardian of Western values was further undermined by a press conference that included sustained attacks on the free press and a downplaying of Russia’s election interference.
Later at the G20 in Hamburg, Trump appeared even more clearly outside the policy mainstream.
The artful drafting of a joint communique saw world leaders banding together without the US: in the fight against climate change, it was 19 in favour and a lone Trump against.
“To get 20 of your friends to agree where to have dinner together tonight is really hard,” said top Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn, denying US isolation.
Trump’s efforts to reset relations with global rivals were equally vexed. During a historic two-hour, sixteen-minute meeting with Vladimir Putin, the US president effectively agreed to put Russia’s 2016 election interference in the past – a major concession to Moscow.
“After very substantive dialogue on this, they agreed to move on to other discussions,” said Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin.
But that bought few tangible benefits beyond a possible ceasefire agreement for southern Syria. Officials are hopeful the measure, effective from noon on Sunday, can stem the blood-letting and open the door for a broader cooling of the vicious six-year civil war – but such ceasefires have come and gone many times before.
Watch: Trump reiterates commitment to ‘America first’ in weekly address
For months, negotiators in Amman had been searching for something much more durable: a safe zone, enforced by troops, which would secure Jordan’s border and allow the regime’s opponents their own territory. That prospect still seems distant.
“The best possible outcome is that this ‘agreement’ becomes a building block for more US-Russian cooperation in Syria,” Cliff Kupchan of Eurasia group told clients in a research note. “But the emerging truce also faces significant obstacles, and its fate is unclear at best.”
On North Korea, Trump appeared unable to translate weeks of sustained public pressure and angry tweets on China into meaningful diplomatic progress.
Across the table from Trump, Xi Jinping offered little indication he would impose the type of sanctions that could make Pyongyang think twice about developing ever more powerful long range nuclear missiles. Trump was left to abandon his own sense of urgency.
“It may take longer than I like, it may take longer than you’d like ... but there will be success in the end, one way or the other,” he said.
With his ideological hardline and diplomacy failing to live up to his “winning” rhetoric, Trump’s second foreign visit left “America first” at risk of becoming “America alone”.