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You are no doubt familiar with the term, “international incident.” That is what happens when a country, in the person of its ambassador or the leader of its government, insults another country, usually on its soil, usually with an intemperate remark or failure to follow proper protocol.
Donald Trump excelled at causing them. Perhaps his most famous international incident occurred in 2018 during his visit to France to mark the centenary of the end of World War I. Trump canceled a scheduled visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial in northern France, about 60 miles from Paris. The Trump White House put out an excuse that rainy weather had grounded his helicopter and he did not want to cause a traffic jam with a motorcade.
It was hogwash. The leaders of Germany, France, and Canada attended the memorial ceremony without difficulty. Rather than attend the memorial for the fallen in a terrible battle during World War I, Trump remained at the American ambassador’s residence in Paris, where he was staying. That was bad enough all by itself.
Two years later, as Trump was running for reelection to the presidency, we learned more about his insult to the memory of those who gave their lives in European wars. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote an article in The Atlantic revealing what had gone on behind the scenes of Trump’s refusal to attend the ceremony at the cemetery. “In a conversation with senior staff members on the morning of the scheduled visit, Trump said, 'Why should I go to that cemetery? It's filled with losers.'” Goldberg went on to report that four members of the Trump traveling team told him the then-president “feared his hair would become disheveled in the rain.”
"In a separate conversation on the same trip, Trump referred to the more than 1,800 marines who lost their lives at Belleau Wood as 'suckers' for getting killed,” Goldberg added. Trump’s comments in France were in keeping with another remark he had made to his chief of staff, John Kelly, a Marine who had reached the rank of four-star general before retiring. Trump and Kelly were attending a Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery in 2017 and standing at the grave of Kelly’s son, who was killed in Afghanistan. “I don’t get it. What was in it for them?” Trump said to Kelly, referring to the thousands of veterans buried at Arlington.
The reports of Trump’s remarks in Paris and Arlington reached an audience that had a very different history with wars on the European continent. Tens of millions of European soldiers and civilians were killed in the two world wars fought in Europe in the 20th Century. Those wars led to NATO, the alliance of European countries and the United States that was formed after World War II to prevent aggression by the USSR in Western Europe.
Trump stepped into it with NATO as well, one time threatening to abandon the alliance because other member nations were not paying “their fare share” for the defense of Europe. On several occasions, Trump indicated that belonging to NATO wasn’t in the best interest of the United States, frequently citing his so-called “America first” agenda. Trump’s phrase, “America first,” was borrowed from a pro-Germany movement before World War II that worked to keep the United States out of that war.
In April of this year, speaking at an event held by the right-wing Heritage Foundation in Florida, Trump told his audience that he had threatened leaders of NATO nations in Europe that the United States might not abide by NATO’s Article Five collective defense clause, which commits all member nations to treat an attack on one member nation as an attack on them all. Trump explained that a fellow NATO leader had asked him, “Does that mean that you won’t protect us in case — if we don’t pay, you won’t protect us from Russia’ — was the Soviet Union, but now Russia. I said, ‘That’s exactly what it means.’” Trump went on to express amazement that his conversation with the leader of another NATO country had leaked while he was still president.
Well, leak it did, and Trump’s behavior diplomatically while he was in office for four years goes a long way to explaining why the kerfuffle just occurred among NATO nations over sending tanks to beleaguered Ukraine, fighting for its life against the very nation from which Trump threatened not to defend Europe because he was squabbling over NATO dues and European defense budgets he considered inadequate.
The plain fact is that Europe no longer trusts its American ally to stick to its NATO commitments, and that applies to support by NATO nations for Ukraine, even though that country is not a member nation of the alliance. Germany, France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Poland – all of them have been watching the right-wing of the Republican party which just took over the House of Representatives and moved Republicans who have criticized American support for Ukraine into key leadership positions. They question how long American support for Ukraine will stay strong with the likes of Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert being rewarded with power by the incredibly weak Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy.
And they remember Trump’s disdain for the price European nations paid in blood and treasure to free the continent from Naziism and keep it free from Soviet – and now Russian – aggression.
Diplomacy counts. Ukraine would not have received a single bullet from NATO nations without the diplomatic skills of President Joe Biden pulling the alliance together and pointing it in the direction of defeating Vladimir Putin. But diplomacy is only as good as the resolve of nations to stick to it. The U.S. position in the NATO alliance was severely damaged by Donald Trump, especially in 2018 in Helsinki when he cozied up to Putin and announced that he would take Putin’s word over that of his own intelligence services on the issue of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The European nations now lending Ukraine billions of dollars of support, both military and humanitarian, are not assured that Donald Trump or someone just like him will not again take the reins of the government and lead the United States back in the direction of Putin and authoritarian leaders like him.
That’s why they wouldn’t get off the dime and agree to supply Ukraine with tanks until the U.S. stepped up and did it first. Ukraine has one person to blame for the dithering that just went on among NATO nations over its defense: America-firster Donald Trump.
Lucian K. Truscott IV, a graduate of West Point, has had a 50-year career as a journalist, novelist, and screenwriter. He has covered Watergate, the Stonewall riots, and wars in Lebanon, Iraq, and Afghanistan. He is also the author of five bestselling novels. You can subscribe to his daily columns at luciantruscott.substack.com and follow him on Twitter @LucianKTruscott and on Facebook at Lucian K. Truscott IV.