A transactional meeting between Mr. Trump and Mr. Iohannis
The atmosphere in Romania was yesterday full of unsurprising events. The mainstream media that covers almost the entire media spectrum had a single subject: the visit of President Iohannis at the White House. Defined as a „working visit”, the meeting with Mr. Trump was presented as one-life event, comparisons with the meeting between dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu and Jimmy Carter in 1978 being usual. During the second part of the communist regime, Romania tried to have an independent foreign policy and to raise the autarchy level at the expense of a good domestic policy and support of the well-being of its people, similar to Kim Jong-un current actions. This is one of the reasons why I dislike this way of translating this bilateral visit.
There are few issues when we talk about the Romanian media makers. One of them is that the media channels and outlets are highly conglomerated. Secondly, it is that they have strong links with the top economic and political stakeholders. Lastly, the agenda is dominated by few actors if we are looking closer. There is polarization between these conglomerates, but mainly of domestic policy issues (mainly on anti-corruption and party support), the foreign policy going unquestioned.
The critical publications are mainly critical towards the Social-Democrats and most of them supported President’s political agenda. A neutral civil society is difficult to find, except few people that are speaking out on some issues usually on Facebook.
The meeting between Trump and Iohannis was a meeting in which both presidents endorsed their agendas, a transactional meeting that lacked values. It may be considered a superficial visit, considering the lack of discussion on topics related to society, culture, politics, environment, science, or a transactional one having in mind the impressive cooperation between them, with a focus on burden-sharing inside the Alliance.
How many European leaders would have said frankly „I was in Brussels and I met President Trump and I listened to his speech and I liked it” when the American leader was scolding the leaders of the Alliance and endorsed his strong leadership? I cannot imagine more democratic or more authoritarian leaders talking like this. However, we have to appreciate how the Romanian leader emulated Trump, showing understanding and support for common issues and applying some discursive elements used by POTUS.
Donald J. Trump used the opportunity to show that he has someone that understands his view on burden-sharing, that is fully endorsing his discourse on military spending and that has shown commitment to reach the 2% GDP level for defense expenditure during his mandate (critics may highlight that the negotiations on these commitment took place during the mandate of Barack Obama; however, the general view in Eastern Europe was that Obama neglected this region, adding it to pro-Republican traditional voices and anti-Russian feelings).
After Merkel campaign speech after the NATO Summit when she encouraged Europe to create and follow it own path, showing that you have a medium-size European country on your side is a good strategic move. It had during in the Rose Garden a president that assisted when he was attacking Qatar for financing terrorist activities and pledging to say the truth under oath on former FBI Director Comey accusations of obstruction of justice.
Mr. Trump used the chance to congratulate Mr. Iohannis and to highlight some very appreciative words towards US-Romanian cooperation, including the diplomatic relations, the image of Romanian-born Auschwitz survivor Elie Wiesel, the sacrifices of the Romanian soldiers on the battlefield during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the commitment of the Romanian state in supporting the Alliance and the partnership with the United States.
On the other side, Klaus Iohannis appreciated a „a great partnership”. We have to mention that the visit was mainly about the celebration of the launch in 1997 of the bilateral Strategic Partnership between the United States and Romania, in a time in which Romanian bureaucracy was obtaining significant achievement towards the two pillars of the current defense and security framework: the Strategic Partnership with the United States and the adherence to the North-Atlantic Treaty Organization. It continued with the confirmation of the pro-American direction of President Iohannis, a step that will value good percents in the polls and at the ballot boxes in 2019, when he will seek reelection. In May, Klaus Iohannis was at 25%, the lowest popularity level since his election in November 2014.
But the major domestic gain that Mr. Iohannis obtained from the President of the United States was the endorsement for the anti-corruption fight and, the most important, the commitment to Washington Treaty Article 5. The question for Mr. Trump on anti-corruption came from a Romanian journalist, supporter of Klaus Iohannis, involved in the propaganda war in February in the name of justice. Therefore, we have to consider it as being targeted to the domestic loyalists. And Donald Trump stated that he will support the fight against corruption and the protection of rule of law and justice. But the fight against corruption is a fight with the out-group’s corruption, rule of law is more rule by law as the in-group interprets it and the justice they are talking about has some problems with the human rights standards. Ironically, the statement came during one of the biggest presidential scandals in the history of the United States, a crisis related to justice and corruption.
Observers could ask other questions as how is possible to endorse someone that is having a fight with the press and the civil society and to appreciate his „strong leadership”, how is possible to say nothing when Mr. Trump is starting the press conference with an alarming message on Qatar, considering Romania’s good historical relations in the last century with other Middle East stakeholders (and Turkey, that is Romania’s forth trade partner promised military support for Qatar). Is the mandate for the visit an excuse for this? But also how do you represent the interests of the Romanian citizens when you support the accession to the visa waiver program for business? What about reciprocity at state-level or non-discrimination among the citizens that elected you? And, lastly, nothing about poverty alleviation, environmental collaboration and other societal problems without whom you cannot achieve deep security?
It was a transactional meeting in terms of leadership endorsement, defense acquisitions and burden-sharing inside NATO. Following Trump activity during the campaign and after the inauguration, I expected a behavior like this, but not from his counterpart.