PARIS — European politicians and policy makers have begun to feel they’re watching a horror movie: the tale of an American administration with a split personality as sinister as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—the first perfectly reasonable and sociable, the other monstrous, unable, and unwilling to control its impulses. And all this as the very existence of the European Union and the credibility of NATO hang in the balance with far-right populists like Geert Wilders in the Netherlands and Marine Le Pen in France potentially set to gain enormous power through upcoming elections.
The respected French daily Le Monde describes this administration as one where there’s “a civil war at the top” between “the rationals” and “the radicals.” And over the last few days “the rationals”—Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of Defense Gen. John Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Secretary of Homeland Security Gen. John Kelly—have been in Europe trying to find ways to say that the president does not really mean what he has said again, and again, and again, and keeps on saying. No, the rationals insisted, NATO is not “obsolete.” Yes, the United States supports the European Union.
And the rationals might have succeeded in convincing their closest European friends that the U.S. commitment was as serious as it sounded—until Europe saw video of President Donald Trump soaking up adoration at a staged rally in Florida on Saturday, as if slobbering fans could vindicate his trademark incoherence.
The rally was the antithesis of reasonable discourse, and a potent reminder for many that Disrupter-in-Chief Steve Bannon continues pushing an agenda that will break up the EU, and diminish NATO while exalting Russia and its Putinesque authoritarianism.
“Trump’s craving for love and admiration and adoration can make him extraordinarily sensitive to whoever would influence him,” says François Heisbourg, a veteran of the European policy establishment who is now affiliated with the Foundation for Strategic Reasearch.
“Every single ally of the United States now has to think of hedging,” said Heisbourg.
With diminishing confidence in support by the American superpower, many leaders in Europe will look to cut deals with Russian President Vladimir Putin that may compromise their participation in the Atlantic Alliance. As far away as Australia, another importante American ally, the inclination will be to curry favor with China at the expense of American interests if Australians believe Washington no longer has their back.
As traditional alliances fall apart, Russia and China will emerge as much stronger regional and global powers. So it’s little wonder that Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, speaking at the annual Munich Security Conference on Saturday, proclaimed the coming of a “post-West world order.”
And what was the American response? Part of the tradition at the Munich conference over the last half a century is that speakers answer questions after they have presented their prepared remarks. But the American delegation declined to do so. “The Americans,” as Le Monde put it, “preferred not to find themselves in the uncomfortable position of not knowing what to say.”
In a world trying to navigate multiple crises, the overall impression is that the U.S.S. Trump is a rudderless flagship. Staffan de Mistura, the United Nations envoy trying to forge some sort of peace settlement in Syria, noted, “The big question is where is the United States in all this?” He couldn’t say. Former NATO chief and EU foreign policy czar Javier Solana said Pence talked to the Munich conference as if to a bunch of children: “‘I love you, I love you,’ but with no substance.”
Others discerned an almost mutinous undercurrent at the conference. Early on, U.S. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) gave a speech that drew a clear line between the (unnamed) U.S. president and his more rational, professional Cabinet.
McCain denounced those who “turn away from universal values and toward old ties of blood, and race, and sectarianism.” He decried “the hardening resentment we see toward immigrants, and refugees, and minority groups, especially Muslims.” He noted with alarm “the growing inability, and even unwillingness, to separate truth from lies,” and the extent to which “more and more of our fellow citizens seem to be flirting with authoritarianism and romanticizing it as our moral equivalent.”
Giving Pence, Mattis, and Kelly a shout-out, McCain said neither he nor they would be “laying down the mantle of global leadership.” And when the White House announced Monday that hard-driving H.R. McMaster, another general, would take over the position of national security adviser, McCain welcomed the appointment as if he’d just had a star player added to his team: “I give President Trump great credit for this decision, as well as his national security cabinet choices. I could not imagine a better, more capable national security team than the one we have right now.”
At the Munich conference, when Pence made his appearance, he struck many in the audience as “somebody attempting to and succeeding in projecting the image of someone who is mainstream,” said one participant. The vice president spoke in the dulcet tones he learned working as a radio and TV talk show host. And, as the same observer put it, the sentences Pence spoke “had a subject and a verb—we are not used to this anymore.”
“I had the impression he was positioning himself as Gerry Ford,” said this participant, alluding to the man who became vice president and then president as the government of Richard Nixon collapsed in 1974.
As Heisbourg put it, Pence gave the impression that “if stuff happens, there will be an adult around.”
That would seem the least Europe could hope for. The very least.