President Donald Trump has strengthened U.S. relations with European allies, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted on Tuesday — reports to the contrary from those same allies aside.
Tillerson made the assertion while speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. Referencing Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, Senator Chris Murphy (D-CT) noted that a number of world leaders had expressed anger and frustration over the move — not least of all German Chancellor Angela Merkel, a close U.S. ally whose widely-covered disapproval of Trump Murphy singled out. “Is this a deliberate strategy?” Murphy asked. “Should our allies start making plans that rely less on U.S. leadership and U.S. support?
“The American people have been reaching in their pockets and paying for their leadership for a very long time,” Tillerson responded, going on to argue that Trump’s foreign policy has actually been received well by U.S. allies in Europe.
“I think what our approach is, and I think and I would tell you my interpretation of Chancellor Merkel’s remark, was [her saying] to the German people: ‘You need to understand we are going to have to do more than we have been doing, because we have that responsibility now. We should not look to America to carry us on their backs every step of the way.’” said Tillerson. “That’s part of the conversation that we have been trying to stimulate.”
Tillerson’s comments offered a wildly different narrative than the one currently playing out across international media — and misconstrued the meaning of the German chancellor’s words in the process. Following the conclusion of Trump’s first international trip abroad last month, Merkel in fact offered concern and caution.
“The times in which we could completely depend on others are on the way out. I’ve experienced that in the last few days,” Merkel said following the trip. “We Europeans truly have to take our fate into our own hands.”
Lest there be any confusion about her feelings, Merkel also blasted Trump’s decision to abandon U.S. commitments to the Paris accord, an agreement that brought together nearly every country in the world to work toward sustainable climate action. In addition to deeming Trump’s decision “extremely regrettable,” Merkel also joined Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni and French President Emmanuel Macron in a joint statement condemning the action. They were among numerous world leaders who panned the U.S. exit, which has played poorly across the globe.
Trump’s strained relationship with Merkel wasn’t the only dynamic Tillerson addressed during Tuesday’s hearing. He also tried to paint Trump’s insulting behavior toward NATO allies as a diplomatic coup.
“You are well aware of the demands we have been making of NATO members. Secretary General [Jens] Stoltenberg has thanked us,” he said. “They have never seen a response because of the pressure put on others.”
While Stoltenberg has indeed commended NATO members for stepping up in recent months, Tillerson failed to note just how much Trump has isolated the United States from the rest of the alliance.
As a presidential candidate, Trump repeatedly questioned the alliance’s contemporary usefulness.
“I think NATO’s obsolete,” he said in March 2016. “NATO was done at a time you had the Soviet Union, which was obviously larger, much larger than Russia is today. I’m not saying Russia’s not a threat. But we have other threats.”
Trump’s comments sparked considerable concern from allies at the time, so much so that President Barack Obama had to reassure world leaders on the subject. But Trump seemed to reverse course almost a year later after meeting with Stoltenberg, emerging from the conversation claiming he “no longer” thought of the organization as obsolete. In May, that reversal was put to a test in Brussels, Belgium when Trump met with fellow NATO members. Lecturing his counterparts about contributing their “fair share,” Trump also declined to renew Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which calls member nations to defend one another in case of an attack. (He later reversed course on that as well — in June.)
Following Trump’s comments in Brussels, Stoltenberg downplayed the rift during an interview with Face the Nation. But his Sunday talk show appearance was far from a display of heartfelt gratitude.
“[It’s] a good thing is that the European Allies now understand that we have to invest more in defense, not only to please the United States, but because it is in the interest of Europe to invest more in security because we live in a more dangerous world,” he said, before going on to offer a pointed comment about Trump’s move to exit the Paris agreement.
“He has made his decision, and we have heard the reactions from European allies,” Stoltenberg said. “I think this illustrates that NATO is an alliance of 28 democracies.”
Tillerson isn’t the only member of the Trump administration to offer a very different interpretation of the president’s frosty dynamics with world leaders. In May, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer asserted that Trump’s meetings abroad had gone well, allowing the president to bond with his counterparts. Singling out Merkel in particular, Spicer called Trump’s relationship with the German leader close and “fairly unbelievable.”
“They get along very well,” Spicer said. “He has a lot respect for her.”