It is no secret several Western European leaders would prefer a different American president, but they have no choice but to deal with the leader of the world’s most powerful country, according to foreign-policy experts.
President Donald Trump has broken with liberal European leaders over the Paris climate accord and has well-known differences with the ruling governments of several countries on issues such as trade and immigration. And he has pressed for reform of the NATO alliance.
All this adds up to the potential for friction as Trump prepares to meet with his counterparts at a summit of the Group of 20 economic powers in Hamburg, Germany. Fred Fleitz, vice president for policy and programs at the Washington-based Center for Security Policy, said that meaningful progress is unlikely this week for those reasons.
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But Fleitz said he believes European governments will choose to pursue areas of common interests, including energy, fighting the Islamic State, and — perhaps — trade.
“Now that Europe is finally getting over Trump’s election, I think they’re going to start listening to him,” he said. “I hope that lays the groundwork for agreement down the road.”
Fleitz, a former intelligence analyst, said Trump’s pre-summit speech in Poland was “brilliant” because it allowed him to “seize the agenda” by emphasizing ties to a Polish president who shares a lot of his values.
Robert Kaufman, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California, said it is important to note that Europe does not speak with one voice. He said France and Germany, the counties most likely to lecture Trump, would not find agreement with other countries.
“Europe wants the United States to be subservient to the European Union. That tends to be why they dislike all Republican presidents.”
“Eastern Europe knows better … [British Prime Minster] Theresa May knows better,” he said. “As far as [German Chancellor] Angela Merkel and the French, Ronald Reagan went through the same thing. George W. Bush went through the same thing.”
Kaufman said Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was twice as popular as Reagan in West Germany in 1986.
“Ingratitude is a major element in politics,” he said. “If I got lectured, I would fire right back.”
Kaufman said Merkel and other leaders might find short-term profit in publicly rebuking Trump. But he said America remains indispensable.
“They’ll take the cheap laugh or the cheap approval,” he said. “But it isn’t in their long-term interest to denigrate the president of the United States.”
Fleitz disputed the contention — fashionable in left-wing commentary — that the United States has abdicated its role as global leader and that rising powers like China are rushing to fill the void.
“It doesn’t mean that at all,” he said. “Europe wants the United States to be subservient to the European Union. That tends to be why they dislike all Republican presidents.”
By way of comparison, Fleitz pointed to a meeting last year to discuss the civil war in Syria. The talks included Russia, Turkey and Iran — but pointedly, not the United States.
“The United States wasn’t even invited because [then-Secretary of State] John Kerry had no credibility,” he said.
Alan Tonelson, an economic policy analyst who blogs at RealityChek, noted that the G-20 is primarily oriented toward economic issues. That means that global commerce will be on the agenda, he said.
“There’s little doubt that trade will come up,” he said. “The big question is how it will come up.”
Tonelson noted that a report ordered by Trump that could trigger steel tariffs has been delayed until after the conference. He said that could mean that Trump wants to personally tell European leaders that tariffs are coming, or that he has not made up his mind, or that he will deal with countries on an individual basis.
“It’s very hard to tell what the administration’s going to decide,” he said.
Historically, Tonelson said, the G-20 nations have worked hard to achieve consensus.
“Among the other 19, that remains a goal,” he said. “But clearly there is a different species of president they’re dealing with.”
Tonelson said there are three possible outcomes: The participants could issue a communique emphasizing their disagreements, they could issue a bland statement papering over those differences, or they could acknowledge their differences while committing themselves to shared principles. Tonelson said the last option would be the most productive because it would represent some honesty.
“Because there are major differences,” he said.