Trump's Trip to Europe: Unprecedented Protests and Unpopularity

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U.S. President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump board Air Force One from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S. May 19, 2017. Jonathan Ernst/REUTERS

Donald Trump begins his second foreign foray as U.S. president on Wednesday with a stop-off in Poland before heading to the G20 summit in Germany on Friday. Trump’s trip comes at a time of trouble for him, enjoying less international popular support than George W. Bush at the height of his own presidential travails.

Given Trump’s unpopularity is particularly marked in Western Europe, it is no coincidence that he has decided to make a Polish stop-off, where Washington recently deployed hundreds of troops. The country’s government, run by the conservative, Euroskeptic Law and Justice Party, has been much more welcoming of Trump than many other EU counterparts, and the country is one of only four NATO members other than the United States that spends the 2% target of GDP on defense.

Examples of the Polish administration’s affinity with Trump include its opposition to immigration, support for burning coal, and skepticism of multilateral institutions. Right now, for instance, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo finds herself in heated battles with the EU over her administration’s refusal to resettle refugees and migrants, and opposition to judicial changes that Brussels says will weaken the rule of law.

Recalling former U.S. defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s controversial division between so-called “Old Europe” in the West of the continent and “New Europe” in the East, Trump will also attend the Three Seas initiative. This is a conference in Wroclaw, Poland, for leaders from 12 Central European, Baltic and Western Balkan states.

Yet, despite the warm reception the U.S. president will receive in Poland, he is likely to find himself even here in a significant foreign policy disagreement. That is because many in the country are concerned about Russia’s resurgence, especially given Trump’s previous skepticism of NATO and his occasionally warm rhetoric toward Vladimir Putin.

Putin/Trump Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a news conference at the Kremlin on January 17. President Donald Trump is shown at a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, on May 20. Sputnik/Alexei Druzhinin/Kremlin via REUTERS and Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout/File photos via Reuters

However, the trip’s overall theme will be U.S.-Polish solidarity and this will bolster Trump before the G20 which could be a significantly rougher ride for him. Criticism he could receive at that German summit stems from his “America First” philosophy, including his controversial withdrawal from the Paris climate change deal; his pledge to build a “Mexican wall”; plus his temporary travel ban for six Muslim-majority countries.

The latest evidence of the extent of international disdain for Trump is found in a major report last week from Pew Global Research. Remarkably, this found that around three quarters of the world has little or no confidence in his international leadership and policies. 

Indeed, in many countries support for the president is lower than that for Bush in 2004 after the controversial U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. To be sure, at least two significant countries—Israel and Russia—have much higher faith in Trump and his international leadership. But these are very much the exceptions in a sea of international negativity toward him from Asia-Pacific to the Americas.

As last week’s Pew data revealed, the spike in anti-U.S. sentiment in many countries for the first time since Bush’s presidency means Trump now has potential to become the least popular ever U.S. president overseas in modern history. And this could undercut much of the work that Barack Obama undertook to turn around the climate of perception about the country in the last eight years. 

Obama U.S. President Barack Obama reviews honour guard during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Palace in Vientiane, Laos September 6, 2016. REUTERS/Jorge Silva

Coming into office in 2009, Obama confronted a situation in which anti-U.S. sentiment was at about its highest levels since at least the Vietnam War. The key factor driving this was the international unpopularity of the Bush administration’s foreign policies in the so-called ‘war on terror.’

The Obama team did much to reverse these public opinion patterns. According to one research study, the “Obama effect” was estimated to have raised the value of ‘Brand America’ by 2.1 trillion dollars in the first year of his presidency alone. This reflected the substantial increase in foreigners regarding the United States as the most admired country in the world again following the Bush presidency. 

This turnaround in fortunes was not only been welcomed in Washington but also in corporate America following concerns during the Bush years that U.S.-headquartered multinationals were becoming a focus for commercial backlash from anti-Americanism. However, despite successes, Obama’s progress was uneven. Perhaps the biggest failure of his global public diplomacy was toward what he called the Islamic world. 

For instance, despite the early promise of Obama's Cairo speech in his first term in which he sought to reset U.S. relations with Muslim-majority countries, anti-Americanism remains high in several key states including Pakistan and Egypt.

Yet, despite this, more than 64% of the global public trusted in Obama’s international leadership in the final year of his presidency—a far cry from the situation for Trump today.

Indeed, it is crystal clear that much of the world still wishes that Hillary Clinton was elected last November. Although she lost last year’s U.S. election, she was the stand-out winner in last year’s poll of nearly 50,000 people in 45 countries, covering 75% of the world, by WIN/ Gallup International Association. The survey found publics in all but one country (Russia) wanted Clinton to win over Trump.

And the WIN/Gallup poll results were very similar to that by Handelsblatt last year that was taken with some 20,000 people in the G20. Once again, Russia was the only state where Trump bested Clinton.

Taken overall, the Polish trip will be welcome respite for Trump given growing international disdain for him. As polls indicate, he may become the least popular U.S. president overseas in modern history, undermining his potential for foreign policy success in coming years.

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.