LONDON – Even before the latest escalation of nuclear threats between Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, senior diplomats and officials from the US's European allies have been warning that the US president’s approach to world affairs is extremely dangerous – pointing to his apparent ignorance of other countries’ history, his unfiltered use of social media, and the lack of a strong, experienced team around him.
In interviews with BuzzFeed News, six top European government officials who’ve had firsthand dealings on the international stage with Trump and his administration describe a president regarded even by allies as erratic and limited, and whose perceived shortcomings are compounded by the ongoing chaos beneath him in the White House.
The officials, all speaking on condition of anonymity, voiced similar and consistent concerns, in particular over his unprecedented use of Twitter, which they said demonstrated the lack of normal government controls at the top of the administration.
“Trump could send a tweet in the middle of the night pissing off Kim Jong Un. And the next morning we wake up to a world on the brink of war,” one seasoned diplomat told BuzzFeed News.
That observation came before Trump's latest bellicose rhetoric, and the sense of alarm in European governments can only have increased in the last 24 hours. On Tuesday evening, Trump warned North Korea would be “met with fire and fury like the world has never seen” if it continued to threaten the US. His comments have already prompted Kim Jong Un’s regime to ratchet up its own threats, announcing that it was considering a preemptive missile strike on the US Pacific territory of Guam. On Wednesday morning, Trump tweeted that the US nuclear arsenal is now "far stronger and more powerful than ever before...."
The current standoff is a dramatic illustration of the grave international concerns over Trump.
On one level, the officials said, he is something of a laughing stock among Europeans at international gatherings. One revealed that a small group of diplomats play a version of word bingo whenever the president speaks because they consider his vocabulary to be so limited. “Everything is ‘great’, ‘very, very great’, ‘amazing’,” the diplomat said.
But behind the mocking, there is growing fear among international governments that Trump is a serious threat to international peace and stability.
“He has no historical view. He is only dealing with these issues now, and seems to think the world started when he took office,” a diplomat told BuzzFeed News, pointing to Trump’s remarks and tweets about defence spending. “He thinks that NATO existed only to keep the communists out of Europe. He has a similar attitude in Asia-Pacific with Japan, ignoring that the US basically wrote their constitution.” During his presidential campaign, Trump called out Japan to pay more for the security US provides, including for hosting the US troops in the country. Japan’s constitution restricts its military options.
They also believe Trump’s foreign policy is chiefly driven by an obsession with unravelling Barack Obama’s policies. “It’s his only real position,” one European diplomat said. “He will ask: ‘Did Obama approve this?’ And if the answer is affirmative, he will say: ‘We don’t.’ He won’t even want to listen to the arguments or have a debate. He is obsessed with Obama.”
Another diplomat said it had proved impossible to discuss serious international issues, such as Libya, with Trump. And seven months into his presidency, the European officials say they are still struggling to figure out who else they can engage with in the US administration.
Describing a meeting between their boss and the president as “basically useless,” they said: “He [Trump] just bombed us with questions: ‘How many people do you have? What’s your GDP? How much oil does [that country] produce? How many barrels a day? How much of it is yours?’”
“He’s not the kind of person you can have a discussion about how to deal with [Fayez] al-Sarraj [the prime minister of Libya]," the official added. "So you look for people around him, and that is where it’s a problem: The constant upheaval, it’s unclear who has influence, who is close to the president."
A number of European officials compared Trump with Italian former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi – but said the similarities end at their inappropriate jokes during meetings.
“Berlusconi wasn’t ignorant. And behind him he had officials and a whole government structure you could engage with,” one diplomat said.
The officials revealed that at international meetings, Trump has openly mocked his own aides, contradicting and arguing with them in front of other leaders. That has compounded the impression of an administration in chaos. “We can hear everything, it’s weird,” one diplomat said.
Officials also expressed concerns over the status of the State Department, and the lack of seasoned diplomats and experts within the White House. One diplomat suggested that US counterparts have privately lamented to Europeans about the number of roles in the administration that have yet to be filled resulting in a lack of clear positions on many policy areas.
“The White House lacks crucial expertise,” one said. “The State Department and others are isolated. You have the generals, the National Security Council, and then a void. There aren’t enough diplomats, experts etc. in the White House. [Secretary of state Rex] Tillerson has a small team. Does Trump listen to [James] Mattis [secretary of defence], [H.R.] McMaster [national security adviser], to the experts?”
The officials think only Trump's family members, in particular his daughter Ivanka, really have the president's trust. They described the body language between Trump and Tillerson as “terrible”.
A senior US defence official, who also spoke to BuzzFeed News on condition of anonymity, described the many roles that still needed filling, some of Trump’s comments about US allies, and the apparent differing positions within the administration as “not ideal”.
However, the official added: “If you go beyond the antics and look at actions and shared interests there is no way you can say the US is turning away from Europe. There are no signs the US is retreating.”
Some diplomats noted that Trump understands power dynamics, and seems eager to affirm his place within these. “He gets that Germany is important. He is very graceful with China’s Xi Jinping. The impression is that he is seeking affirmation and approval as president of the United States,” a senior European government official said.
Still, the official added, “he divides up countries based on his worldview. He doesn’t respect France for their handling of immigration. It is clear he dislikes Germany.”
European officials who spoke to BuzzFeed News said the effects of Trump’s “America First” agenda were already visible, and the potential consequences worrying.
“The main risk is a progressive disengagement from multilateralism, not just on economic issues, but also from political matters with potential risks linked to a return to unilateral action,” a diplomat said.
A number of the officials BuzzFeed News spoke to wondered whether the US would today intervene if there were a new conflict in the Balkans or an uprising in a country such as Algeria. “What happens then?” one source asked. “These are big questions, big imponderables.”