A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Off to a Rough Start


Trump’s first hundred days in office indicate what his priorities will be over the coming years. Transatlantic relations are unlikely to get smoother.

© REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Since Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first term began in 1933, a president’s first hundred days in office has been a benchmark by which to assess their accomplishments, ideological outlook, and governing style. Admittedly, measuring any presidency by the first hundred days is somewhat arbitrary: Bill Clinton’s first hundred days were a time of chaotic mismanagement that ultimately led to massive White House shake-up. At day 100, George W. Bush had just passed a trillion-dollar tax cut and was casting himself as humble on the international stage with a foreign policy tilted toward the western hemisphere. September 11, 2001, the event that would ultimately define his presidency, only happened on day 234. Obama, still riding high on a 65 percent domestic approval rating and nearly universal international adoration, had passed a stimulus bill, bailed out the US automobile industry, and launched a series of foreign policy moon shots like eliminating nuclear weapons and closing Guantanamo.

But even as presidencies prove nonlinear and event-driven, the hundred-day stocktaking does have some predictive power. On US foreign policy and transatlantic relations in the Trump era, five realities – what Donald Rumsfeld might have called “known knowns” – have become clear.

First, Trump thrives on unpredictability. When Trump came into office, his administration quickly placed a lot of foreign policy fundaments back on the negotiating table. The US commitment to NAFTA, NATO, the EU, the One-China policy, the two-state solution policy, and the WTO were all up for review. Trump killed the Transpacific Partnership (TPP), the crown jewel of the Obama administration’s pivot to Asia and arguably the most effective geo-economic instrument to manage and constrain China’s rise.

Vice President Mike Pence, Defense Secretary James Mattis, National Security Adviser Lt. Gen. HR McMaster, and a cadre of acolytes of US Senator John McCain have worked to maintain US commitments in Europe, particularly in NATO. But the learning curve has been steep. The fact that there is a learning curve at all belies the fact that the Trump team never bothered to build the policy architecture necessary to govern.

Even if Trump’s careening rhetoric on NAFTA and NATO ultimately leads to very little policy change, they have damaged the credibility that the US would underwrite the international architecture it helped to build. As a result, allies and adversaries alike are repositioning themselves. Because Trump has asserted that the US might be a revisionist – rather than a status quo – power, all others must consider that they, too, must become revisionist powers to stabilize, reconstitute, or upend the international system in their favor.

Second, at both a popular and elite level, US standing in the world has taken a hit. Global US favorability fell by 12 percent in the aftermath of Trump’s election, its lowest level since George W. Bush was in office. A US News & World Report poll showed that 75 percent of non-Americans surveyed had lost some respect for US leadership following Trump’s win.

The Trump-led free fall of the US’s image globally started before Inauguration Day. In 2016 Iran’s state-run television aired the US presidential debates live to showcase the ugliness, bigotry, corruption, and hypocrisy of American democracy. It is worth noting that just eight years prior, Obama’s election helped to inspire Iran’s 2009 pro-democracy Green Revolution, as millions of Iranians poured into the streets chanting “Yes we can” to protest Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s fraudulent reelection before being violently suppressed.

The first hundred days, however, have reaffirmed global biases. The post-Obama US image abroad made possible policy objectives like UN Security Council votes on Iran, Libya, reopening Cuba, and building global climate change deals. The absence of global goodwill could affect the ability of the new administration to get things done with Europe. That will make negotiations on tough issues like a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) deal, a renewal of the EU-US data protection agreement Privacy Shield, as well as unity on sanctions against Russia and NATO defense spending all the more difficult.

A Climate of Corruption

Third, the fleeting “drain the swamp” campaign rhetoric has given way to an endemic culture of administrative corruption. Whether it is Ivanka Trump’s business dealings with Azerbaijan’s government in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the president’s opaque tax history, his dubious investment and financing relationships with Chinese state banks and Kremlin-affiliated oligarchs, or a State Department announcement promoting Trump’s private Florida club Mar-a-Lago as the “winter White House” (fees at Trump’s exclusive resort have doubled since his 2016 election victory), it is clear that the Trump White House is flirting with as much of a de facto merger between the US government and the Trump organization as the courts and American public will allow.

This has two knock-on effects in Europe. The mission of cleansing the region of corruption – a top national security priority of the US in recent years in places like Ukraine, Russia, and Turkey – will be hampered by an administration whose leadership is adopting many of the same thinly veiled kleptocratic practices. In addition, the administration will be open to a loose ecosystem of graft that could affect policy. Practices once common only among corrupt authoritarians have become common fare. Even Chancellor Angela Merkel travelled to DC with a German business delegation – a practice normally reserved for China and Russia – and has shrewdly taken up the mentorship of Trump’s daughter.

Trump’s affinity for corruption cannot be disentangled from his attraction to authoritarian strongmen on the world stage. The bellwether here is still Russia. Despite the Syrian bombing, the State Department’s decision to maintain the Crimea and Minsk II-conditioned sanctions, and the disappearance of fawning Trump coverage on RT, Sputnik, NTV, and other Russian channels, Trump’s claim that the relationship has gotten worse since the darkest days of the Obama administration is not borne out by facts. The post-referendum congratulatory call to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is grimly consistent with Trump’s penchant for authoritarians. And the White House remains keen to strike some sort of big deal with Putin’s Russia.

Fourth, the administration has made it clear that it is most interested in “quick wins” that can be felt immediately and communicated easily. That means heavy reliance on executive action. Trump’s largest policy accomplishment has been the rollback of Obama-era executive orders and regulations. For Europe, this includes three important areas. One is the erasure of the Cardin-Lugar rule requiring publicly-listed oil, gas, and mining companies to officially disclose payments made to leadership figures of resource-rich, often corrupt countries. On climate change, the White House has gleefully erased rules on coal-fired power plants and reauthorized the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines, placing US commitments under the Paris climate change agreement in question. The administration is also rolling back net neutrality regulations, authorizing greater data processing by telecoms that potentially curtail data rights of European citizens.

Finally, on Europe’s anchor state, Germany, Trump’s rhetoric may be flamboyant – but on policy, he has demonstrated that there are no permanent presidents, only permanent interests. The two primary points of friction for US foreign policy toward Germany remain. Trump – like Obama – believes that at 1.2 percent, Germany’s defense expenditure is woefully low given the health of the German economy (and the NATO commitment to spend 2 percent of GDP on defense by 2024, adopted at the 2014 Wales summit). The US resents the fact that Germany’s comparatively small defense budget (raised by eight percent this year) provides cover for smaller, less prosperous alliance members. If Germany does not spend more, how can Italy or Spain?  And Trump – like Obama – chafes at the US-German trade imbalance. At $65 billion, Germany currently enjoys an annual wealth transfer from the US worth more than the combined economies of Croatia and Estonia. The US looks jealously at Germany’s world-class manufacturing sector, whose cars and appliances compete directly with the politically vital American Midwest. Germany does, however, harbor a similar mix of admiration and resentment toward the US tech sector, the main corrective for the bilateral trade relationship that still favors Germany.

Other similarities abound. Trump is maintaining, and expanding, on “Buy America“ procurement provisions that became a mainstay of Obama’s 2009 stimulus package. The Trump administration also shares the Obama administration’s admiration for German vocational training. Obama made it a theme of his 2013 State of the Union address. In her first visit to Berlin, Ivanka Trump toured the Siemens Technik Akademie to learn about apprenticeships. And the rocky relationship around tech, data, and national security will continue to flare up – albeit without the Google-driven brain trust that staffed the Obama White House.

What does this mean as Europe plans for the remaining 1362 days of Trump’s first term? This fall, the National Security Council is slated to release a National Security Strategy (NSS), the closest approximation of a Trump doctrine. The intellectual architecture for Trump’s foreign policy must be built around the man’s personal capriciousness, desire for quick wins, inclination toward bombastic, tough-guy rhetoric, attentiveness to his political base, and clan-like loyalty to his family and business interests. These strands come together under the nebulous heading “America First”; for Germany, the EU, and the world, it is going to be a bumpy ride.

Read more in the Berlin Policy Journal App – May/June 2017 issue.