European leaders stood arrayed on one side of a narrow conference room table, leaning in. On the other side: President Trump, seated alone, his arms folded.
Diplomacy cannot be dictated by “fits of anger”, French President Emmanuel Macron has warned after the G7 summit in Canada ended in acrimony.
The photo, released Saturday on German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Instagram account and later tweeted by Trump national security advisor John Bolton, fast became a Rorschach test for an increasingly troubled relationship.
Trump was clearly isolated. But was he making an overdue stand against an expiring global order? Or was he just the odd man out in the world’s most powerful club?
The enchantingly unreadable facial expressions make it impossible to know.
On the day after the Group of Seven summit blew up in spectacular fashion, with Trump using idle time on an airport runway to insult his host and repudiate an agreement he had made with allied leaders only hours earlier, emotions were far easier to divine.
Allies were indignant. They were defiant. Yet they were hardly shocked by the outcome of a critical global gathering that had gone worse than any that longtime foreign policy players had seen.
“It was not a surprise,” said Norbert Röttgen, chair of the foreign affairs committee in Germany’s parliament, the Bundestag. “The president acted and reacted in the childish way he could be expected to.”
To the U.S.’s closest partners, the pattern has become disturbingly familiar. Trump’s abandonment of the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear agreement and his decision to impose protectionist tariffs on European steel and aluminum products have established a level of animosity between the United States and Europe that, by many measures, surpasses even the rift over the Iraq War.
The depth of exasperation showed in a Sunday afternoon statement from French President Emmanuel Macron’s office.
“International cooperation cannot be dictated by fits of anger and throwaway remarks,” the statement said. “Let’s be serious and worthy of our people.”
For many in Europe, the question now is how best to preserve any kind of multilateral cooperation. Dealing with Trump’s whims and last-minute changes of mind has proven a strategic nightmare.
“How is it possible to work this way if once you have agreed to something, two hours later the guy decides he doesn’t agree with what he agreed with?” said François Heisbourg, a former French presidential national security adviser. “Is there any space for a multilateral order under these circumstances?”
Trump’s choice to abandon the G-7 communique was announced in a pair of tweets as he prepared to lift off early from the two-day summit in Quebec City. The decision – which came with an attack on Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau for being “weak and dishonest” — directly contradicted an announcement by Trudeau minutes earlier in which he declared that all seven member-states had signed the joint statement.
In that announcement, Trudeau had said the summit was “very successful,” but he also said Canada would retaliate against metals tariffs that had been aimed at allies.
Following Trump’s tweets, Trudeau’s office issued a statement saying he “said nothing he hasn’t said before — both in public, and in private conversations with the President.”
The dispute was joined on Sunday by Larry Kudlow, Trump’s chief economic adviser, who accused Trudeau of “betrayal” in advance of the president’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and said that Trudeau had “stabbed us in the back.”
How to handle Trump has become one of the most pressing issues confronting U.S. allies.
Röttgen, the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee chairman, said they have learned to anticipate his outbursts and U-turns, and should respond to them accordingly. He criticized Merkel’s team for releasing the much-discussed photo.
“By portraying him as the naughty boy in the room, he will stick even more to his behavior and it will get worse,” said Röttgen, who is a member of Merkel’s center-right Christian Democratic Union. “We have to ignore his behavior and concentrate on what is left of the substance of the transatlantic relationship.”
Just how much is left is a matter of debate. Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser, wrote in his tweet of the photo that it was “Just another #G7 where other countries expect America will always be their bank. The President made it clear today. No more.”
Others used the image to mock Trump: “Just tell us what Vladimir has on you,” European Parliament member Guy Verhofstadt imagined Merkel saying. “Maybe we can help.”
The relationship between the United States and its allies could be frayed even further if the trade war escalates — a scenario that Röttgen said he expects, with the United States in his view likely to move against German carmakers.
But Röttgen derived at least some hope from Trump’s proposal for entirely tariff-free trade among allies. Although Trump coupled the idea with a threat, and most experts see the notion as far-fetched, Röttgen said it is at least a basis for discussion.
Of all European countries, Germany has the most to lose from a trade war with the United States. The United States had a $151 billion trade deficit in goods with the European Union last year. Germany alone, with its high-end automobile and appliance exports, accounted for $64 billion of that.
Trump has repeatedly complained on Twitter about German automobiles flooding the U.S. market and has asked his administration to examine possible tariffs as a way to curb their popularity among American consumers, a point he reiterated on Twitter on Saturday.
But amid the animosity, there were signs among otherwise frustrated allied leaders that they see Trump and his “America First” agenda as an aberration and not necessarily as expressive of a new reality.
Macron emphasized his belief that Trump’s vision of America was at odds with American values.
“President Trump saw that he had a united front before him,” Macron said via Twitter. “To find itself isolated in a concert of nations is contrary to American history.”
Other European leaders, meanwhile, continued their attempts to try to tamp down transatlantic disagreements. Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May preferred tact to confrontation, even after Trump allies allegedly told the Telegraph newspaper that the U.S. president had grown weary of May’s “school mistress tone.”
Asked Saturday evening by the press whether she “liked working with him,” May responded, “We have a very good relationship with President Trump.”
May did, however, allow that she and Trump had “a very frank discussion” about trade. May is not only hoping that Trump lift new tariffs on European aluminum and steel, but that he will promise a favorable pro-Brexit trade deal with the United Kingdom after it leaves the European bloc.
There were also a few palpable cracks in what Macron had called a European “united front,” especially on the subject of Russia. Trump had called for Russia to be readmitted into the G7 group, much to the dismay of leaders of Germany, Britain and France.
Not so with Italy. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, who arrived in Quebec less than a week after the swearing-in ceremony for his new populist government, took Trump’s side.
He said on Twitter that Russia’s return to the group was “in the interests of everybody.” He softened his stance in other remarks, telling reporters that Italy is not seeking sanctions to be removed “overnight.”
With virtually no political profile before arriving in Quebec, Conte is a little-known academic chosen as a compromise representative of two insurgent parties now governing Italy. But he seemed to make an impression on Trump, who wrote on Twitter that Conte would soon visit the White House. “He will do a great job — the people of Italy got it right!” Trump wrote.
Political anaylsts in Rome were skeptical of Conte cozying up too much to Trump.
“Conte went too far ahead with Trump,” said Roberto D’Alimonte, a political science professor at LUISS Guido Carli, a university in Rome. “And then he backtracked a little and realized he was out of step with our natural partners.”
In a front-page analysis story Sunday, one of Italy’s major dailies, the center-left La Repubblica, said of Conte that “every move made by the premier has been conceived so as to break the European front and attempt to build an anti-EU axis with Trump.”
But if that was the goal, there was clear defiance in the European response.
Peter Altmaier, the German economy minister and one of Merkel’s closest allies, tweeted Sunday that “The West doesn’t break so easily.”
“We are all The West, if we live and defend its values,” he wrote. “Especially, when it’s difficult.”
In much of the European press, the tendency was to underscore the historical significance of the rift between the United States and its continental allies.
For Le Monde, a leading French daily newspaper, Trump’s approach seemed a deliberate attack on the postwar consensus. “Donald Trump is the same age as the world order put in place by the United States at the end of the Second World War, but one would swear he decided that the latter will not survive him,” the newspaper wrote:
Der Spiegel, the German weekly, called Trump’s performance in Quebec “a scandal without precedent” and said that Merkel and other U.S. allies must now be prepared for anything — especially on trade, a topic dear to German hearts.