NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegian diplomats are among those all over Europe finding themselves confused and uncertain since US President Donald J Trump took office in January. Now several are saying that their American counterparts, often confused and under pressure as well, are basically telling them to ignore Trump’s incessant messages on social media and realize that very little US policy has actually changed.
As interest in Thursday’s testimony from the man Trump fired last month as director of the FBI reached fever pitch, because it can affect Trump’s tenure as well, Norway’s biggest newspaper Aftenposten reported how local diplomats and other US allies are getting a clear message from harried US officials: Pay more attention to what the US is actually doing than to what Trump is saying or writing in his incessant and often inflammatory messages on social media.
It’s an extraordinary situation, and similar to the one faced by the Norwegian secretary general of NATO, Jens Stoltenberg. Both Stoltenberg and top US officials including several members of Trump’s own cabinet are having to do a lot of damage control, and put out a lot of fires.
Trump’s now famous omission of any mention of NATO’s “all for one and one for all” Article 5 at last month’s NATO summit in Brussels was just one example. While Trump’s Defense Secretary James Mattis, his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and his National Security Adviser Herbert McMaster had reportedly assured European leaders that Trump would confirm the US’ commitment to NATO, he did not. Instead he all but scolded his European partners over their failure to spend more on defense.
Sverre Lodgaard, a senior researcher at the Norwegian foreign policy institute NUPI, told Aftenposten that it’s nothing short of sensational for US diplomats to basically warn allies against listening to their president or reading his messages. Lodgaard, considered one of the top foreign policy experts in Norway, said the signs of that are nonetheless clear.
“We have seen a string of people from the US administration who have been in Europe and said that the commitments to NATO are firm,” Lodgaard told Aftenposten on Thursday. “But then Trump cuts that out of his manuscript at the summit.” Lodgaard said it may be logical to think that by creating the confusion that followed, Trump is putting more pressure on other NATO members to boost their contributions to defense. The confusion, though, can be detrimental.
Lodgaard was referring to Mattis, Tillerson and McMaster, also known as “The Grownups” or the “Axis of Adults” within the Trump administration, as opposed to what’s viewed as the ignorance and childish behaviour of Trump and some of his closest advisers. “The Grownups” are supposed to keep the Trump administration from totally derailing as it lurches from the effects of one Trump “tweet” after another.
Vacant positions hinder policy enactment
One big problem, a Norwegian diplomat told Aftenposten, is that so many positions within the administration remain unfilled, weakening its ability to carry out Trump’s policy. As a result, there actually have been very few policy changes. They can come, but they haven’t yet, leaving US envoys to stress that US allies like Norway can at least continue to rely on the US in the meantime, and that it’s “business as usual” on a wide range of issues.
The biggest challenge for Norwegian diplomats is reconciling the differences between what’s being said and actually done. Stoltenberg faces the same challenge, trying to reassure NATO members and hold the alliance together at a time when the new US president (who called NATO “obsolete” last fall) is paying it precious little respect. “There’s no doubt that the use of words, the style and the direct talk from Trump is different and not what most NATO leaders are used to,” Stoltenberg told Norwegian reporters after the summit.
Stoltenberg and US officials, meanwhile, can point to more US troops actually in Europe, and stationed relatively close to the Russian border, than there have been since the Cold War. There’s a new brigade, more military exercises, more equipment and more US-backed infrastructure in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland and Norway. In that sense, the US is clearly carrying out its commitment to NATO.
“So actions speak louder than words,” Stoltenberg said while interviewed on the CBS network’s “Face the Nation” program in the US last weekend. It remains difficult, however, for Norwegian and other European leaders to simply dismiss Trump’s recent decisions to withdraw from the UN climate agreement struck in Paris, his controversial Twitter attack on the mayor of London following last weekend’s terrorist attack and the void in world leadership and allied confidence all of Trump’s tirades are creating. Even the withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, however, will take several years to actually be put in place and can be reversed. Trump is also facing a torrent of criticism over his withdrawal decision at home in the US as well abroad.
Aftenposten reported that Norwegian diplomats and government leaders, who’ve been staunch US allies for years, remain uneasy. Even though top US officials like Mattis and Tillerson claim relations are as solid as ever, Trump’s actions will indeed speak louder than words and they are unpredictable at best. And that, as one US senator said recently, “is not good for America,” or the rest of the world.