The French foreign minister accuses the American president of furthering a "divorce" between the United States and its European allies.
"Deep Trade Rift With Allies Seen," is a headline at The New York Times. "The Roots of Western Disunity" is the headline over another Times piece observing, "Over the last few years, trans-Atlantic differences on foreign policy have become so frequent that most of us regard them as the normal state of affairs."
"Rising Trade Barriers Stir Memories of U.S. Depression," is another Times headline, over an article that begins, "A surge of aggressive economic nationalism, as strong as any in the last half century, threatens to overwhelm the free trade policies that have underwritten the postwar prosperity of industrialized nations." It quotes a House staffer who called the situation "the most dangerous since 1930," which the Times reminded readers referred to "the Smoot-Hawley tariffs, which some say triggered the Great Depression."
The Times also writes about the president's "killing off of top foreign-policy officials," noting that so far the president "has had three national security advisers and two Secretaries of State."
That may all sound like it is recent press coverage of the Trump administration. Actually, though, it was all coverage of President Ronald Reagan, from back in 1982 and 1983.
One of the Times' columnists assured readers last week—that is, here in June 2018—that "Trump isn't Reagan. Reagan generally acted in concert with allies. Trump brazenly acts against them."
The word "generally" does a lot of work there. It's true, in retrospect, that we remember Reagan and the prime minister of Great Britain, Margaret Thatcher, or Reagan and the prime minister of Canada, Brian Mulroney, working together rather than quarreling. But it didn't always seem that way at the time, especially to those relying on a press that loves to emphasize conflict and to portray every minor disagreement as an unprecedented crisis.
What Reagan and the Europeans were squabbling about now seems obscure. "Europe-U.S. Gluten Dispute," was a headline on the front of The New York Times business page from May 1982, over a story reporting, "A fast-selling animal feed known as corn gluten, a byproduct of fructose, the sugar substitute, has emerged as a cause of serious trade tensions with Europe."
A June 1982 Times news article was headlined, "Allies' View of U.S. Pipeline Policy: A Stunning Act That Is Self-Defeating." It reported, "The damage done to allied relations by the Reagan Administration's extension of sanctions involving the Soviet-West European natural gas pipeline project is apparently real. It appears to go beyond the dimensions of yet another trans-Atlantic squabble." The Times had covered the development at the top of the front page, in a news article that began, "President Reagan, in a major rebuff to West European allies…"
Thatcher's complaint about Reagan's decision generated another front-page Times story, headlined, "Mrs. Thatcher Faults U.S. on Siberia Pipeline."
European foreign ministers in June 1982 expressed "grave concern" about the Reagan administration's steel tariffs, explaining that they "should be viewed against the general background of escalating trade disputes between the United States and the community, not just in relation to steel, but also to agriculture, export credits and textiles."
Nor was Europe the only place Reagan was accused of straining relations with friends. Times news coverage of Central America quoted a former American ambassador to El Salvador who claimed Reagan's policy there "alienates our allies in the region."
The Times described a December 1981 clash between Reagan and Israel's prime minister, Menachem Begin, as "what was widely regarded as the worst crisis in relations between the two allies." It said American-Israeli relations had "been deteriorating for months over such issues as the sale of United States AWACS [Airborne Warning and Control System] radar planes to Saudi Arabia and the Israeli bombings of a nuclear reactor in Iraq and of Palestinian guerrilla positions in Lebanon."
None of this is to say that Trump will emerge in the end, as Reagan eventually did, as a popular and successful president. Maybe Trump will, maybe he won't. But knowing the history accurately sure helps put things in perspective.
The minority leader in the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), faults Trump for "alienating our allies." The minority leader in the Senate, Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), complains, "President Trump is turning our foreign policy into an international joke." The New York Times editorial writers complain that "Mr. Trump would so outrageously, destructively and thoroughly alienate America's closest neighbors and allies."
Reagan came under basically the same criticism 36 years ago, at about the same juncture in his administration. So, at one time or another, has virtually every other successful president. Europe, Canada, and Mexico complained about President Bill Clinton's Iran-Libya Sanctions Act and his Helms-Burton Act imposing secondary sanctions on countries that traded with Cuba. George W. Bush was accused of alienating France and Germany over the Iraq War.
I'm not advocating tariffs, trade tensions, or clashes with allies. But the thing to remember about them is that they are a standard feature of modern American presidencies—as conventional, predictable, and expected as are the attempts by the press to exaggerate their importance.