In a phone call last week with the prime minister of Australia, a nation that has long been one of our strongest allies, President Trump was combative, belligerent and confrontational, and cut off the conversation with his counterpart less than halfway through the scheduled one-hour discussion.
Based on what I’m seeing from the Australian press, the attempted bullying did not go over well. Bob Carr, former Australian foreign minister, was blunt in a description of its consequences to the Sydney Morning Herald.
“It forces us to drop romantic notions of the alliance and now be more realistic,” Carr said. “It liberates leaders to say no to Washington if it seeks to recruit us for any reckless adventure. America has taken a nationalist direction and won’t be returning to global leadership as we’ve understood it.”
The phone call so alarmed Republicans in Congress that Sen. John McCain and House Speaker Paul Ryan immediately reached out to try to reassure Australia of our continued friendship. That was nice, but as members of Congress their words don’t really mean a lot. Under the Constitution, they don’t get to dictate foreign policy; Trump does.
A day earlier, Trump had taken much the same course in a phone call with Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
“You have a bunch of bad hombres down there,” Trump told the Mexican president in a leaked transcript of the call. “You aren’t doing enough to stop them. I think your military is scared. Our military isn’t, so I just might send them down to take care of it.”
Mexican officials have since said that it is “absolutely false” that Trump threatened to send troops into Mexico. That denial is understandable. If they acknowledge such a threat, especially on the heels of Trump’s attempt to intimidate Mexico into paying for a border wall, it would put Pena Nieto in an impossible situation. However, independent reporting by the Mexican press confirms the accuracy of the AP transcript. White House officials also say that the comments were accurate, but claim they were offered as “lighthearted” by Trump.
I have a hard time imagining those particular words, exchanged between two heads of state, as “lighthearted.” It is never lighthearted to accuse another nation’s military of being cowardly. Nor does that approach make much sense in terms other than as sheer bullying. So far, the “Trump Doctrine” seems to consist of picking fights all over the planet while alienating the allies we might need to win those fights, and it’s hard to see that as a smart, well-thought-out strategy.
Trump of course believes otherwise, as he explained in comments Thursday morning at the National Prayer Breakfast.
“The world is under serious, serious threat, in so many different ways, and I’ve never seen it so much and so openly as since I took the position of president,” he told the audience of faith leaders. “The world is in trouble, but we’re going to straighten it out, OK? That’s what I do, I fix things. We’re going to straighten it out. Believe me. When you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it. Just don’t worry about it. They’re tough. It’s time to be tough, folks. We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
He is a five-year-old playing with matches, with no idea how far the fire might spread once it starts.