At a men’s store in Rome, a salesman told me our president is a “very smart man.” I asked why he thought so as I looked at several silk neckties. The salesman too looked at the ties. “He’s good for my business. He wears his ties long. Men wear their ties short they look like a big belly or a poor man. Not smart. Mr. Trump wears long ties, looks good.” I’ve heard our president called many things, I thought, but fashion icon isn’t one of them.
What I did hear during my two weeks in Europe was a great deal of concern from journalists, elected officials, activists, bartenders, mothers, fathers and a wide variety of Europeans who think that, outside of his fashion choice in neckties, Trump is not that smart. Recent actions by Trump not only scare Europeans, but cement a core belief: Donald Trump is pushing Europe into Russia’s sphere of influence and abandoning the world leadership role the U.S. has held since the end of World War II.
“It used to be the United States was the only country that could make countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia to sit down and negotiate,” Italian activist Franco Trad says. But Trad and others say two recent events show this is no longer the case. Russian president Vladimir Putin recently echoed the fears of Europeans but trumpeted those fears as a victory for Russia. Putin spoke recently at the Valdai forum in the Black Sea resort town of Sochi, where he accused the U.S. of making mistakes typical of an empire and said a new world order is rising with Russia, China, Brazil and India gaining equal footing. “Thank God this situation of a unipolar world, of a monopoly is coming to an end,” Putin reportedly said. “It’s practically already over.”
When Trump decided last week to pull out of a Cold-War era missile treaty brought about by GOP icon Ronald Reagan, Europeans' gasps were audible. When Trump accused Russia of violating the treaty and making it useless anyway, news reports on Russian television and several European networks demanded proof of Trump's allegation. When Trump embraced “nationalism” at one of his recent campaign rallies, a shudder fell across Europe. “He acknowledges he has no interest outside of the United States,” Trad says. “And ultimately that isn’t good for anyone but Russia.”
As the U.S. continues to actively court a corrupt Saudi Arabian government, Russia is trying to win hearts and minds across Europe and the Middle East in another way— via propaganda.
Lodovico Poletto, a reporter at La Stamp, the fourth largest newspaper in Italy, said the fear of unchecked Russian influence and perhaps renewed hegemony is evident as the U.S. retreats from the international stage. “Every nation in Europe is closer to Russia now,” he says. “It is a worry for those who support democracy.” When Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi disappeared after entering Saudi Arabia’s Turkey embassy on October 2, suspicion quickly centered around the Saudi royal family being involved in the reporter’s disappearance and ultimately his death. Several blog sites familiar to the European Middle Eastern community, including an Arabic language online newspaper with offices in Conroe, Texas, intimated Saudi Royal prince Muhammad Bin Salman was directly involved in the killing. One unsubstantiated report had the prince watching the interrogation via closed-circuit television and giving the order to terminate Khashoggi.
Whether true or not, a large number of European Arabs who, like Trad, believe the reports and believe that Trump’s initial defense of Saudi Arabia is dangerous. “The U.S. claims it wants democracy, but it supports Saudi Arabia unconditionally. The royal family is corrupt. There is no government in Saudi Arabia. Just the royal family.” Trad and others in towns across Italy, France and Switzerland say that, as the U.S. continues to actively court a corrupt Saudi Arabian government, Russia is trying to win hearts and minds across Europe and the Middle East in another way— via propaganda produced by Russian television and broadcast in Arabic for Middle Eastern viewers.
“There is really nothing like it and younger people are starting to identify more with Russia than the U.S.,” Trad says. With Trump retreating from the world stage, many European politicians say Russia’s influence will only grow. For Europeans, recent Trump actions show them a U.S. government afraid to step up to its international responsibilities, thus allowing corrupt regimes to inhabit the power vacuum. The danger of the America First campaign and its irony is that as Trump pushes isolationism, he is ensuring that America will no longer be first in anything. Putin’s propaganda spin—comparing the U.S. to an empire—is even more dangerous. Democratic ideals of self-government have been a rallying cry for the oppressed across the world since the American Revolution. Russian hegemony from a state run by an autocratic despot will never find footing among those who are oppressed unless the democratic alternative ceases to act in good faith with its neighbors, or ceases to be involved on the world stage.
In the eyes of many Europeans, the United States government is doing both. That is also why the recent actions surrounding Saudi Arabia cause concern among the citizens of the Middle East and Europe. If you support a government of, by and for the people, why do you continue to do business with a repressive monarchy? The answer, of course, is oil money and the huge arms deals the U.S. has made with Saudi Arabia. This isn’t a problem that began with Trump. The U.S. has supported the Saudi royal family since the formation of Saudi Arabia in 1932. The rest of the Arab world and Europe thus see the United States as a democratic hypocrite. If it’s all about business, then countries can be driven by business interest to the short term “better deal” even if it is ultimately detrimental to a country’s long-term interest. Imagine a repressive leader saying with a straight face that self-government spreading across the globe is an example of an “empire.” That’s Putin’s line, and as corrupt and malevolent as it is, that line gains favor when the U.S. doesn’t step up to the plate to offer in words and deeds a counter balance to Putin’s ideas of medieval fiefdoms ruling the world.
Putin’s aggressive propaganda campaign on European television ensures that avenues are available to listen to the Russian sales pitch in the future. It is counter-programming to the prime-time cavalier approach Trump takes in demanding more money for NATO from his European allies.
So as our president, who prides himself on the Art of the Deal, backs away from making a deal while trying to squeeze his allies for money like a cheap knuckle-buster, he gives the Russian con artist free reign over a sizable portion of the civilized world. Nothing could be more dangerous for the United States.
Khashoggi’s death therefore not only amplifies the fear Europeans have that the United States isn’t what it claims to be, but exemplifies the notion the United States will not protect anyone or punish any country that isn’t in line with the country’s business concerns—even if (as in Khashoggi’s case) that person is a permanent resident of the United States. The U.S. will sell out anyone for money, and as it steps away from the stage it has dominated, it also increasingly gives its every action the opportunity to be seen through a prism not necessarily of our own making.
The United States faces some daunting challenges in Europe even as Trump tries to deal with equally disturbing problems at home (some of his own making) such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting.
In Grenoble, France, the center of the Resistance in World War II, Louis Russo, a young bartender active in local politics, puts it succinctly: “Your country is no longer the country we admire. We admire your Constitution. We admire your freedoms. We admire your people. But your country has lost its way.”
The United States faces some daunting challenges in Europe even as Trump tries to deal with equally disturbing problems at home—some of his own making—such as the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. Europeans think all the American government cares about is business, and they think we don’t even do that very well. To Europeans, the American government seems to be playing right into the hands of a Russian foe far more insidious and corrupt than the Soviet Union which we felled in the Cold War. With the United States no longer the shining citadel on the hill, the challenge for Trump and succeeding generations of American leaders is to get back that leadership role—and right now. But other than making wise choices in men’s neckties, not many Europeans think Trump is up to the task.