(Bloomberg) -- For U.S. President Donald Trump, attending a French-run ceremony to commemorate World War I, a bloodletting that highlighted the value of allies and dangers of nationalism, was never going to be easy. By the time he flew home on Sunday he appeared isolated and, by some, scorned.
Trump arrived fresh off midterm elections where his party lost control of the House of Representatives even as he kept control of the Senate. A Twitter storm over his failure on Saturday to attend a commemoration service of Marines who died a century ago on the battlefields of France is unlikely to affect him domestically, with his backers and opponents already well entrenched.
Abroad, though, the equivalent of any modern U.S. president’s base -- the network of alliances built up through two World Wars and beyond -- appears more fragile. That’s a risk for a leader who may need their cooperation as he confronts China in a trade war and Iran over its foreign and nuclear policies.
The weekend exposed tensions with U.S. allies in Europe over Trump’s decision to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, which has kept the continent free of theater-range nuclear missiles for more than 30 years.
It also underlined growing concerns over the reliability of U.S. security guarantees under Trump, and his wider commitment to a postwar international order the U.S. was largely responsible for building and has benefited from, including economically.
In Asia, Trump’s decision not to attend a pair of annual Asia summits this month -- the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Papua New Guinea and events hosted by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Singapore -- is set to heighten concerns over U.S. reliability among allies there. Vice President Mike Pence will attend in Trump’s place.
French President Emmanuel Macron peppered the field with diplomatic land-mines before Trump arrived in Paris, staging the weekend’s ceremonies to promote his own liberal and internationalist view of how the world should respond to the wave of nationalism that’s sweeping the U.S. and parts of Europe.
Even before the 60-plus heads of state and government hit town, Macron criticized Trump over the INF treaty withdrawal. Speaking to Europe 1 radio on Nov. 6, he repeated his calls for a “true European army’’ as part of a drive for greater Continental autonomy to defend against China, Russia -- and an increasingly unreliable U.S. Trump fired back on Twitter, moments after landing in Paris, describing the comment as “insulting.’’
The two leaders appeared to make up as the weekend got under way. But on Sunday, at the main ceremony to mark the signing of the World War I armistice 100 years ago, Macron again appeared to have Trump in his sights as he attacked nationalism.
“France was shown as the bearer of universal values during these dark hours, as the very opposite of a selfish nation that only looks after its own interest,” Macron said, using language that seemed to target Trump’s “America First policies.” Macron stood beside German Chancellor Angela Merkel as he spoke. “Nationalism,’’ he went on to say, “is a betrayal of patriotism.’’
Peace Forum Snub
The French leader also convened a “Paris Peace Forum” as part of the weekend’s ceremonies, drawing together international organizations and non-profits to discuss how to strengthen global governance.
Merkel, a fellow champion of liberal internationalist ideas, addressed the forum on Sunday, taking up some of the same themes.
“I want to speak of my concerns that are mixed in with today’s commemoration, the concern that national blinders are spreading again, that actions are taken as if to simply ignore our mutual dependencies, relationships and binding ties,’’ Merkel said. She went on to wonder if the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights could be adopted today, adding, “I fear, not.’’
Other leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan were in the audience to hear Merkel. Trump didn’t attend, and left Paris on Air Force One shortly after the forum began.
On Saturday, the White House scrapped the president’s visit to a ceremony for fallen American soldiers at the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in Belleau, about 50 miles (80 kilometers) from Paris, saying rainy conditions made it unsafe to fly there via helicopter as planned.
Apart from Trump’s typical detractors at home, some of the fiercest criticism over Saturday’s no-show came from Europe’s strongest supporters of the U.S. alliance.
“They died with their face to the foe and that pathetic inadequate @realDonaldTrump couldn’t even defy the weather to pay his respects to The Fallen,” Winston Churchill’s grandson, the Conservative British MP Nicholas Soames, wrote on Twitter.
White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and other White House personnel attended Saturday’s ceremony. Trump visited and delivered remarks at the Suresnes American Cemetery just outside of Paris on Sunday.
While Merkel and Macron are pushing back on “America First,” Trump has a growing number of like-minded allies among Europe’s leaders, including in Hungary, Italy and Poland, but they’re as yet too few to set European policy. And he’s also seemed more comfortable with Putin at international gatherings.
Efforts to have the two sit next to each other at lunch on Sunday came to nothing, when the Elysee Palace changed the seating order, according to a Russian official. Trump sat across the table from Putin, who instead talked to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the spokesman said. The Elysee denied any switch in seating arrangements. Putin and Trump are expected to have a meeting at the G-20 summit in Argentina later this month.
Putin praised Macron’s drive for a more unified European military, pointing out that it isn’t new. But the idea has gained steam since the U.K. -- always an opponent -- voted to leave the European Union, and Trump’s election began to sow doubts about U.S. reliability. A stronger European military would take a step toward building the “multi-polar’’ order for which Russia has long argued, Putin said. That’s a model Moscow believes would dilute the transatlantic alliance.
Speaking on Bloomberg Television on Sunday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg dismissed concerns over Trump’s commitment to the Western alliance, despite his light footprint at the weekend’s ceremonies.
“What’s important is that he participated in the ceremony and at the dinner and at the lunch, and that he spoke to a great many heads of state and government,” said Stoltenberg. “Peace and security in Europe depend on the U.S., and he knows that.”
In a separate interview with Bloomberg Television in Sydney, Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia, a key U.S. ally, said that Trump’s absence at the Asian meetings this week didn’t amount to a snub.
“He’s got his reasons for not being there,” Morrison said on Monday. “The U.S. is very engaged in the region and the president, I understand, will be at the G-20 in Buenos Aires. So there’s a lot of these meetings at this time of the year.”
(Updates with Australia PM comments in final paragraph.)
--With assistance from Ilya Arkhipov, Gregory Viscusi, Annmarie Hordern, Justin Sink, Shannon Pettypiece, Nick Wadhams, Helene Fouquet, Patrick Donahue, Gregory L. White, Alan Crawford and Jason Scott.
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