Then the president began picking up the “beautiful” Oval Office phone. In the span of a couple of weeks, Mr. Trump has rattled the world by needlessly insulting allies and continuing to peddle the dumbfounding narrative that the United States has long been exploited by allies and foes alike.
His administration has not departed radically from some core positions it inherited from the Obama administration. Last week, for instance, it admonished Russia over its destabilizing role in eastern Ukraine and signaled unease about Israeli settlements. Yet Mr. Trump’s pugnacious approach to foreign relations and his first executive orders — the most misguided of which was the sweeping travel ban targeting people from seven predominantly Muslim nations — have already undermined America’s standing. The fallout has included large demonstrations in Europe, searing news coverage (the latest cover of the German newsweekly Der Spiegel features an illustration of Mr. Trump holding the severed head of the Statue of Liberty) and strong rebukes from United Nations officials.
It began, predictably, with Mexico. Mr. Trump made America’s southern neighbor and third-largest trading partner the prime punching bag of his campaign. While Mexico’s president, Enrique Peña Nieto, has met the deluge of insults and provocations with exemplary restraint, White House officials have done nothing to dial down the tension. Late last month they insisted they would find a way to bill Mexico for a border wall, perhaps by slapping taxes on imports. This message left Mr. Peña Nieto no option but to cancel a trip to Washington that had been arranged to begin undoing the damage. In a subsequent call between the two leaders, Mr. Trump reportedly threatened Mr. Peña Nieto with deploying troops across his border to take care of “bad hombres.” This was, his aides later claimed, just a joke.
Diplomats and foreign policy professionals were still reeling from that revelation when the first accounts of the call with Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull of Australia trickled in. Fuming about an agreement the Obama administration and Mr. Turnbull had reached to resettle refugees stranded in offshore prisons run by Australia, Mr. Trump went ballistic. The American president reportedly hung up on Mr. Turnbull after declaring that “this was the worst call by far” with a foreign leader that day. There was no apology or backtracking the next day to mend fences with an ally that has obediently followed the United States into its recent military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan and remains an important intelligence-sharing partner.
Far from being embarrassed by the leaked accounts of his calls, Mr. Trump referred to them gloatingly on Thursday. “When you hear about the tough calls I’m having, don’t worry about it, just don’t worry about it,” Mr. Trump told attendants at the National Prayer Breakfast. “They’re tough. We have to be tough. … We’re taken advantage of by every nation in the world, virtually. It’s not going to happen anymore.”
Other administration officials have been no less abrasive. Nikki Haley, the ambassador to the United Nations, made her debut in New York warning that the United States was “taking names” of allies who “don’t have our backs.”
If this bellicose approach becomes the norm, alliances and key relationships will quickly fray, and the appeal of anti-American politicians is certain to grow. When the time comes, as it assuredly will, for Mr. Trump to pick up the phone to make tough requests of traditional allies in moments of crisis, he shouldn’t be surprised if it is the person at the other end of the line who ends the call abruptly.