ROME — When Donald Trump leaves Rome on Wednesday afternoon, he will have completed the “religious portion” of his first overseas trip, which will have taken him to Riyadh, Jerusalem, and the Vatican.
So far, the president has impressed. His speech to Muslim leaders exhibited none of the Islamophobia of the Trump campaign, and may have even seen the seeds being planted for a defense partnership among Arab countries.
But the the two stops after his meeting with Pope Francis – a NATO summit in Brussels, and a G-7 meeting in Sicily – will also be watched closely by Church leaders, for different reasons.
Trump leaves Rome for a leaders’ summit at NATO, an organization he has called “obsolete” in the past.
He later pulled back on that assessment, but still said the defense alliance needed to concentrate more on fighting terrorism, and the members need to pay their fair share.
Trump’s words have had an effect, and NATO has promised to get more nations to pay the 2% of gross national product on defense they promised to at a summit in 2014. So far, only five – the United States, Britain, Poland, Greece, and Estonia – have met this commitment.
The alliance has also been highlighting its anti-terrorism work in Iraq and Afghanistan ahead of the U.S. president’s visit.
For Christians, such efforts are being watched closely, since NATO could provide important support for protecting endangered minorities, or could make things worse if they inflame conflicts without actually doing anything to help.
The G-7 meeting will bring together leaders from the seven most industrialized nations – the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Italy, Germany, and Japan – in Sicily. The Italian hosts have placed “Citizen Safety,” “Economic, Environmental, and Social Sustainability,” and “Innovation, Skills, and Labor in the Age of the Next Production Revolution” on the agenda.
These sound important, but could mean just about anything in practice.
Although G-7 summits usually accomplish little but produce a joint statement, it will be a chance to see how successful Trump is at pushing his international agenda.
The elephant in the room during both these meetings is Russia.
Although the Trump-Russia relationship has been presented as a scandal in U.S. newspapers, the potential friendship between the American and Russian leaders is seen with more nuance across the Atlantic, including at the Vatican.
Francis has been careful not to offend Russia, both to help ecumenical relations with the powerful Russian Orthodox Church, but also to make sure Europe is not divided into a binary West-East paradigm by either party.
This is especially apparent when you see the fine line he walks when speaking about the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, where he refuses to refer to the Russians as aggressors in the conflict, and his refusal to back Western efforts to topple the Russian-backed Assad regime in Syria.
In the pope’s eyes, a lessening of the tension between the U.S. and Russia would be a good thing.
NATO was started as an anti-Soviet alliance, and its place in the world was questioned after the fall of the Berlin Wall – in fact, Trump is not the first to suggest the bloc had become obsolete.
As former Warsaw Pact nations – after spending nearly 50 years as Russian puppets – began asking to join their former foes, NATO began playing a role in European integration.
This role continues – one of the items on the agenda is admitting Montenegro as the bloc’s 29th member – and with the European Union suffering from the aftershocks of Brexit, it’s good to have one organization in Brussels where Britain, France, and Germany can talk without the rancor which has been typical at the EU during the past year.
The Vatican has invested itself in the European project from the beginning, seeing it as a way of overcoming the nationalistic energies which led to so many wars in the 19th and 20th centuries. The irony is the United States has been in many ways the guarantor of peace in Europe, and NATO has since the end of the Cold War often acted as a stepping stone to EU membership.
If Trump can steer NATO towards a more anti-terrorism role – especially if this includes protecting Christian minorities in vulnerable areas – as opposed to being a purely anti-Russian alliance, while at the same time keeping it as a tool of European integration, Francis will have little to complain about.
Russia also looms over the G-7 meeting: It used to be the G-8, until Russia was suspended in 2014, after it annexed the Crimea from Ukraine.
Its exclusion is less consequential than the orientation of NATO, but it does frame the meeting as one in which the Western powers seem to dictate to the rest of the world (which is one of the reasons the more inclusive G-20 summits began in 1999.)
The meeting will take place on the Italian island of Sicily, putting it in the Vatican’s backyard.
In different ways, both Francis and Trump are suspicious of the globalist agenda of the G-7. Francis will want climate change, migration, and sustainable development on the table. Trump has been trying to get them taken off, and instead push for “better deals” with his chief international partners.
The EU will be represented at the meeting, and it will be one more opportunity for Trump to try to smooth over the tensions created by Brexit, although if he has the temperament or even desire for such a task remains to be seen.
The future of Europe may depend on it, which is why the Vatican will be watching closely.