Air Force One was all gassed up and ready to go. And it was easy to understand why: The personal transport vehicle that ferries the president of the United States was parked in enemy territory, having borne the commander in chief to a vipers’ nest filled with mortal enemies. A quick getaway might be necessary. And, in fact, it was.
A few days earlier, the president had flown briefly into and out of Afghanistan — truly hostile territory — to bear tidings and good wishes to the American troops serving in the nation’s longest military conflict. That trip, mercifully, went off without a hitch.
But this trip was different. Air Force One was now parked in Great Britain, a nation whose citizens are so hostile to Donald Trump that its embattled prime minister, Boris Johnson, facing national elections on Dec. 12, kept his distance from the man to whom he has frequently been compared. And the event he was attending was a NATO conference — indeed, a celebration of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which had come into existence, with American leadership, 70 years before, in 1949.
Trump and NATO, however, are another kettle of fish. He has no affection or appreciation for the organization that united Europe and its North American allies after World War II to prevent internecine tensions from erupting into conflict and to restrict the expansion of the Soviet Union (now, Russia). Trump’s sole concern is to insist that the other NATO members pay a greater share of its military costs — a not-unworthy campaign, and one on which he has made some progress. But other aspects of NATO’s mission, be they economic, diplomatic, democratic or humanitarian, are demonstrably of no interest to him, and haven’t been since he made his debut at a NATO summit in Brussels in May 2017, rudely shoving aside the prime minister of Montenegro to get close to the cameras taking a group photo.
Last weekend, tensions continued between Trump and the other NATO leaders. There were causes: ruffled feathers between Trump and Canada’s Justin Trudeau concerning not just Canada’s military contributions to NATO but also U.S.-imposed tariffs on Canadian exports that Trump described as a national-security concern (this, with our neighbor, our closest ally, and largest trading partner); Trump also grumped about French President Emmanuel Macron’s expressed concern over the morale and direction of NATO, due (implicitly) to the withdrawal of vision and leadership by the United States.
So Trump climbed on Air Force One and cut out early. There was supposed to be a joint press conference to conclude the summit, but he declined to participate. (Meanwhile, a video had emerged of Trudeau, Macron and others allowing their tensions with Trump to boil over into laughter.)
We’ve seen this movie before. In November 2018 Trump represented the U.S. in a solemn commemoration in Paris of the Armistice that ended World War I in 1918. To put it mildly, he represented us poorly. With other leaders, he was supposed to lay a wreath at the Aisne-Marne American cemetery in Belleau, the site of a battle in which more than 1,800 Americans died. He cancelled because of rain. (The others attended.) He participated only minimally in a parade past the Arc de Triomphe, and flew home rather than attending a widely hailed Paris Peace Forum. Nearly 60 other world leaders participated.
As one commentator observed, the Peace Forum, “(o)ne of the signature events of Macron’s presidency, stands in direct contrast with Trump’s ... unilateralist foreign policy. The forum is ... a gathering of ‘actors of global governance,’ coming to garner support for collective ‘solutions’ for global governance and peace. Not exactly your Trumpian cup of tea.”
Five months earlier, he had cut out of a Group of Seven (G7) summit in Quebec, having reluctantly signed a bland but unifying joint statement meant to demonstrate cohesion among those economic powers. Learning that Trudeau had expressed resentment about the Trump-imposed tariffs, the president called him names (via tweet) and withdrew his signature. Trump was on his way to Singapore for a self-promoted summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. We know how that turned out.
The rest of the world has begun to formulate its plans without including the United States of America. Under Trump’s presidency, we have revealed ourselves to be unreliable in every realm important to cohesion, progress and survival. Trump has even speculated about withdrawing from NATO. Literally and figuratively, Air Force One is always primed to cut and run.
Perhaps the best we can do is to wish them well — and wish that we were among them.