Global Affairs

A steadying hand on Trump

Europe has a choice: To shun the US President or engage him as British PM Theresa May has done. Each option carries its own risks.

LONDON • She didn't hold his hand, did she?

Well, she not only did that, but when British Prime Minister Theresa May became the first foreign leader to meet the newly inaugurated United States President Donald Trump in Washington, she also walked with him, ever so tenderly, through the White House gardens. Cameras found them hand in hand before they arrived for their joint press conference - reportedly due to Mr Trump's anxiety navigating sloping land, although Downing Street dubbed the hand-holding "a chivalrous gesture".

For Mrs May, this gesture came naturally and was seen as a mere by-product to the more serious objective of establishing a personal, friendly relationship with the man set to rule the world's only superpower until the end of this decade.

But many European commentators and quite a few European leaders responded to Mrs May's gesture with derision, dismissing the British Premier as just "America's poodle", ready to sacrifice every scruple, just as her island nation slides away from its European moorings.

There, in a nutshell, is Europe's conflicted reaction to the rise of Mr Trump: Some European leaders believe that Mr Trump and the populist tsunami he represents should simply be embraced and tamed, while others want to confront him.

It is possible that PM May deludes herself into thinking that she can influence President Trump. But it is equally likely that the rest of Europe's leaders delude themselves by trying to shun Mr Trump; the question is which approach carries less risk. And, on this score, engagement still seems to be better than isolation.

And, at least for the moment, it's not evident which side has the better strategy; the only conclusion which remains crystal clear is that the stakes for Europe in adopting the right engagement strategy with America remain extraordinarily high.

The Europeans have a long history of being annoyed with newly elected US presidents.

They were furious in 1968 when Richard Nixon defeated Hubert Humphrey whom the Europeans adored, and in 2000, when photogenic Al Gore, with his love for all plants, animals and human beings, was defeated by that loud-mouthed, red meat-chomping George W. Bush.

And then there was Ronald Reagan, that B-movies actor who came to power in 1980 knowing nothing of foreign relations and strategic issues and allegedly threatened to plunge humanity into World War III, only to end up as the president who put an end to the Cold War and who came closest to agreeing to the total abolition of nuclear weapons - not bad for a man whom millions of Europeans dismissed in protest marches as a "war-monger".

Still, European hostility to Mr Trump exceeds all those previous cases. For, in a curious way, Mr Trump embodies everything the Europeans love to hate about Americans. He is rich and brash, respecter of no traditions or conventions. And, horror of horrors, not merely does the new US President dismiss the Europeans as largely irrelevant, he seldom even recalls their existence.


Given this enormous political and cultural gulf, Europe's instinctive reaction to the start of Mr Trump's presidency was simply to maintain its distance from the new White House occupant. That is not only prudent, but also popular.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel's standing soared when, a day after Mr Trump's election, she sent him a list of principles on which she is not going to compromise. She was instantly hailed as the West's true new leader.

Keeping aloof from Mr Trump allows European leaders to duck in and out of involvement with the Americans, while still claiming they are not compromising on principles. So, soon after talking to the US President over the past weekend about future cooperation, French President Francois Hollande lashed out at Mr Trump's latest immigration restrictions, calling them promoters of "extremism", a term he won't ever use against any other Western leader.

But cold-shouldering the new US leader is also popular with European Union leaders who see any tension across the Atlantic as a justification for the creation of a federal Europe. "The EU will be able to benefit" from Mr Trump, breezily predicts a report from the Jacques Delors Institute, a think-tank for Euro-federalists, because it will force Europe into "a spirit of cooperation and of solidarity rather than by vainly vying for the favours of a partner which is, in any case, likely to direct its gaze elsewhere".


But although this policy appears more principled, it also entails some very profound dangers which will become obvious soon enough.

The first is that, by treating Mr Trump as a pariah, the Europeans risk encouraging precisely the worst isolationist sentiments of the new administration; Mr Trump is famous for digging in and doubling-down on whatever he is doing, whenever he is directly opposed.

The biggest beneficiary from such a development will be Russian President Vladimir Putin. It is impossible for the Europeans to continue appealing to Mr Trump to maintain economic sanctions on Russia in deference to European security interests, while the Europeans show no interest in Mr Trump's priorities.

It is noticeable, for instance, that while President Trump's phone conversation with Mr Putin over the weekend did not directly broach the topic of sanctions, the Russian leader offered to rekindle the spirit of the World War II alliance in working with the new US President on any topic, precisely what a majority of Europeans are not offering.

European aloofness also breeds myths. One such myth making the rounds in Europe is that Mr Trump's accident-prone presidency won't last long, and that he will be impeached and cease to be US leader.

Yet, that is dangerous nonsense. Impeachment is a political, rather than legal process. It was used against three out of 45 US presidents, but has never led to a successful conviction. Even if Mr Trump were to be accused of committing a "high crime or misdemeanour", as the US Constitution requires for the start of impeachment, it is highly unlikely that the current Republican-dominated House of Representatives would launch such proceedings. And even if proceedings were to start, they would take months and would paralyse not only the US, but the world as well.

In short, the idea that "Mr Trump is a temp" remains a fantasy, one that says more about the delusional nature of Europe's current state of mind than about the current state of politics in the US. It is also a distraction from the real business, which is to try and engage with the new US administration.


That is the thinking behind Mrs May's radically different approach. It clearly suited her to brush aside all the reservations and be the first leader to meet Mr Trump in the White House. That helped dispel the idea that Britain is isolated as it seeks to leave the EU, and also boosted hopes for a future British free trade deal with the US.

But beyond these narrow national interests, Mrs May genuinely believes that she can do a lot of good for Europe as a whole by embracing - largely figuratively, she still hopes - the new US leader. That is the only way to convince Mr Trump that unleashing a trade war with either Europe or Asia would be counter-productive. That is the only way of persuading Mr Trump to maintain America's security umbrella over Europe. Most European leaders may find this hard to believe, but when Mrs May walked into the White House at the end of last week, she really did intend to argue for Europe as a whole.

Of course, the British leader knew she would be accused of acting as a "poodle" to the Americans by the same commentators who are guaranteed to have dismissed her as a failure if she did not get a meeting with him first.

Mrs May also knew that she would be accused of condoning Mr Trump's behaviour, as she duly was when she initially refused to criticise the President's moves to bar entry to citizens from some Muslim countries. But seen from her perspective, the alternative of shunning Mr Trump carries even bigger risks.

It is possible that PM May deludes herself into thinking that she can influence President Trump. But it is equally likely that the rest of Europe's leaders delude themselves by trying to shun Mr Trump; the question is which approach carries less risk. And, on this score, engagement still seems to be better than isolation.

According to British officials, the hand-holding episode between Mr Trump and Mrs May was the result of the American President's "chivalrous act", intended to steady the British Premier on her feet as she was walking down a ramp in Washington.

But the man who provides a steadying hand is also steadied as a result. And that's what Mrs May sought to achieve.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'A steadying hand on Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe