How Slovenia tried (and failed) to capitalize on the Trump presidency
Successive governments hoped that Melania Trump would be a useful ally but that wasn't the case.
Jure Kosec is a journalist at Slovenian daily Delo.
LJUBLJANA — In the end, there was Twitter love but not much else.
As world leaders lined up to congratulate Joe Biden on his success, Slovenian Prime Minister Janez Janša remained noticeably silent. Days earlier, Janša argued it was “pretty clear that American people have elected” Donald Trump even though the result was at that point far from known. Janša also said he thought Biden “would be one of the weakest presidents in history.”
Yet while Janša remained defiantly pro-Trump, there was precious little closeness between the U.S. under Trump and Slovenia, the birthplace of Melania Trump.
Slovenian politicians of all stripes hoped that a U.S. first lady born and raised in their country could have a transformative effect and improve ties that, according to diplomats, had been tested in the past decade by Slovenia’s closeness to Russia.
That never happened.
For Roman Kirn, former Slovenian ambassador to the U.S. who also served as an adviser to former Prime Minister Marjan Šarec, the hope of recent years was to secure a turnaround in relations with the U.S. “We needed a break in our history of non-communication when no high-level visits took place from 2012 onwards. That was the main priority,” Kirn said in a telephone interview.
It took until earlier this year before Slovenia finally caught the Trump administration’s eye by agreeing to sign a joint declaration on 5G security.
In August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo paid a visit to Ljubljana for the official signing ceremony and praised Slovenia as a valuable ally. Pompeo also brought along good wishes from Melania Trump, who didn’t make a single visit to her country of birth, either officially or unofficially, while her husband was in office.
Many ordinary Slovenians still don’t quite know what to make of the outgoing first lady, who is arguably the country’s most famous citizen.
The same goes for many Slovenian politicians, who have regularly expressed a sense of pride but never dared say out loud what benefits her unique position might bring to the country of her birth.
Among them was Miro Cerar, who was prime minister in 2016 when Trump became president, and later served as the country’s foreign minister under Šarec.
In a telephone interview, Cerar confirmed that both he and his successor’s governments considered Melania Trump a potential asset in Slovenia’s foreign policy and relations with the Trump administration.
“Our expectations were that we could, through her engagement, do more for the promotion of Slovenia,” Cerar said. Those expectations, according to him, included a visit by the Trumps to the country.
Cerar, who in 2018 became the first Slovenian foreign minister in more than eight years to visit his counterpart, Pompeo, in Washington, said when he was prime minister, he and President Borut Pahor invited the Trumps to visit Slovenia but received no affirmative response.
According to Cerar, Melania Trump was friendly but Slovenia was obviously not a priority.
The current government led by Janša was much more public in its hopes for the relationship.
During his parliamentary confirmation hearing at the beginning of this year, Anže Logar, who replaced Cerar as foreign minister, stated that the newly formed government wanted to work with Melania Trump and other famous Slovenians abroad with the goal of advancing the country’s interests.
Logar did not elaborate on what kind of cooperation he had in mind, but his words nevertheless surprised senior diplomats who knew that this was unlikely to work out.
“I can’t imagine how any serious diplomacy could work with Mrs. Trump in such a way,” said one diplomat who wished to remain anonymous. “It is a fact that we weren’t able to capitalize on this during the last four years. It is also clear that she doesn’t have any interest in the country whatsoever.”
Yet Janša’s plans were grand.
As part of Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the second half of 2021, his government wanted to lure Donald Trump to Brussels for a high-level EU-U.S. summit, the first in more than six years.
After Trump’s election defeat and Janša’s tweets, hopes for a Slovenia-brokered summit next year have evaporated, although officially, the government’s ambition has not changed. “The summit remains on the list of proposed events of the Slovenian presidency,” the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said. “The final decision is up to the president of the European Council.”
Yet diplomats privately concede that unless something unexpected occurs, the game is probably over. “Given what has been happening, it’s practically science fiction now,” said one.
During an appearance before Slovenian lawmakers last week, Foreign Minister Logar insisted that the country’s relations with the U.S. have never been better and dismissed accusations that the PM’s vocal support for Trump represented a scandal.
Logar’s words echoed what Janša wrote on Twitter on November 8, when he said that the U.S. is Slovenia’s strategic partner and that his governments have always built friendly bilateral ties, “no matter which party the U.S. president was from.”
His critics have yet to be persuaded. They fear that the three-time prime minister, known for his close relations with populist leaders including Hungary’s Viktor Orban, has gone a step too far and his tweets have undermined the country’s position within the EU.
“It would not surprise me if European leaders decided to remove key responsibilities and divert media attention away from Slovenia’s presidency of the Council of the EU,” said Peter J. Verovšek, a lecturer in politics at Sheffield University. “Janša disgraced the whole of Europe which is something leaders from other member states and European institutions won’t easily forget.”