To no one’s surprise, new reports indicate that Donald Trump referred to German Chancellor Angela Merkel as “that b***h” and to Germans in general as “krauts.” These are among the revelations in the forthcoming book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year by Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker.
The anecdotes are yet more confirmation that Trump’s foreign policy was a chaotic and spiteful mess driven by personal animus, bigotry, and ego. His promise to break with the Washington consensus and focus on “America First” turned out not to be a pragmatic, hard-nosed reassessment of strategic aims, but a farrago of selfishness and confusion.
Trump’s open contempt for the rest of the world was a decisive break with the rhetoric of his predecessors. Democratic and Republican administrations in the Cold War and since had mostly embraced a foreign policy of (purportedly) benevolent engagement and widespread intervention. From Eisenhower to Obama, American presidents have declared their intention to spread democracy and combat totalitarianism. “The United States made military and moral commitments in Europe and Asia which protected free nations from aggression and created the conditions in which new democracies could flourish,” as George W. Bush said in 2003. Bush, like other American presidents, defines American interests and global interests as congruent.
Trump instead embraced nationalism and US self-interest openly. He didn’t claim to care about building democracy in the Middle East; he just said he wanted to take the region’s oil. He disliked international alliances, and kept insisting he wanted to pull out of NATO because European nations weren’t paying their share of the defense burden. He even curtailed US contact with the World Health Organization during the Covid-19 pandemic.
Many, in America and abroad weary, of hypocritical and self-serving rhetoric, were optimistic about Trump’s new, supposedly more honest foreign policy approach. Some commenters even hoped it would lead Trump to be less likely to invade other countries. The reasoning was that America has traditionally gone to war out of starry-eyed idealism, in an effort to remake other nations in our own virtuous image. Since Trump didn’t care about the rest of the world, he’d leave it alone.
That is not how things worked out, though. Instead, Trump’s foreign policy of nationalism turned out to be a foreign policy not of honesty or isolationism, but rather one based on Trump’s whims and personal selfishness. He was less interested in advancing US interests than in advancing his own political and personal fortune, which he defined both narcissistically and erratically.
For instance, Trump likes to think of himself as strong and powerful and brutal. As a result, he often associated himself with and praised dictatorial leaders like North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. He even specifically praised Russian leader Vladimir Putin for his authoritarianism, enthusing that “the man has very strong control over a country.”
In contrast, Trump chafed at having to negotiate with equals and peers, and often lashed out at longtime allies. He called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “very dishonest and weak,” and sneered at French President Emmanuel Macron’s low approval rating. He called Merkel “stupid” in a phone call — so again, it’s not surprising to hear he insulted her in private as well.
On substantive policy, too, Trump veered wildly about. He vetoed efforts to withdraw from the conflict in Yemen, vastly expanded US drone strikes, and did his best to scupper the US nuclear deal with Iran. On the other hand, he initiated a sudden and chaotic US withdrawal from Syria which put Kurdish people in great danger. The Trump Doctrine wasn’t a committed principle of non-intervention so much as a series of scattered decisions based on momentary whims and who had talked to the president last.
Trump did hew stoutly to certain policies. He clung to tariffs with China that badly damaged the US economy for little gain. And he was committed to using American foreign policy to tamper in US elections. He was impeached because (as he admitted on live television) he repeatedly tried to blackmail Ukraine into launching investigations into Trump’s Democratic rival (and now president) Joe Biden.
Trump’s appeal for many was always that he supposedly would tell it like it was. He eschewed the mealy-mouthed language of diplomacy and the conventions of altruistic pretense. In crudely insulting Angela Merkel, he was essentially fulfilling his campaign’s promises to strip government of pretense. Instead of hypocrisy, America would approach the world with open, curdled belligerence.
But open, curdled belligerence is, as it turns out, a poor approach to coordinating an international pandemic response. It’s not a great way to facilitate peace either. Diplomats use mealy-mouthed language because when you’re trying to reduce the possibility of conflict and violence, you need to choose your words carefully. It’s not actually in America’s interest, or in anyone’s interest, for the president to insult vast swathes of the world’s population.
Hypocrisy is ugly. But promising to cut through the hypocrisy so you can wallow in naked greed, corruption and cruelty isn’t pretty either. America’s foreign policy of regularized invasion and bombing in the name of democracy has been a disaster for the world. But the Trump alternative of crude provocation and violent racism for its own sake has not been a notable improvement.
Insulting Angela Merkel is not the worst thing Trump ever did. But it’s emblematic of his foreign policy of self-indulgence and failure.