Donald Trump’s recent trip abroad was hardly the roaring success that the White House was hoping for, but it wasn’t the abject disaster that his opponents have been portraying it as, either.

Yes, he took a rather unorthodox approach: That was evident from the very beginning. Most new presidents make their first foreign trip a short jaunt to Canada or Mexico, relatively friendly countries right next door. Trump chose a different path, figuratively and literally.

His first stop, Saudi Arabia, was a nation with which we have a longstanding friendship, but very little in common. They are not a democracy, and over the years they’ve come under withering criticism from American politicians of all ideological stripes, including Trump himself during the campaign. Many on both the left and the right decry the Saudis’ blatant disregard for human rights and their apparent willingness to finance terrorism across the world – but the fact is they remain a close ally.

Staff photo illustration by Michael Fisher

Our two nations may not have much in common, but we do have capitalism, and that draws us together. Moreover, they serve as an important strategic counter to Iran, where crowds chant “Death to America” in the streets, treaty or no treaty.

It would be nice if we lived in a world where the United States could be allies only with friendly, reliable democracies like Great Britain, but that just isn’t the case. The fact is, we have to depend on countries like Saudi Arabia all over the world for strategic reasons, while many democracies we might prefer to work more closely with are less reliable as allies. That’s not easy for us to accept as a country founded on democratic ideals, but unfortunately, that’s just the way things are – and it’s always a difficult balancing act for any president, no matter how experienced or competent they are.

In Europe, Trump baffled many observers with his unwillingness to explicitly endorse Article 5 of the NATO treaty, which assures mutual self-defense to all members.

That, to be sure, was a mistake, one that unnecessarily undermined the confidence of our friends and might have emboldened our enemies. However, what wasn’t an error was Trump’s insistence our European allies share more of the financial burden of their own defense. Each member of NATO is supposed to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense; in reality, only five of the 28 member states hit that target. Essentially, the United States acts as a credit card for Europe when it comes to defense spending. This allows them to spend more on domestic priorities, while the U.S. gets criticized for spending too much on the military.

It’s not surprising that Europeans are willing to take advantage of the situation. Imagine if you were a homeowner, and your neighbors agreed to pay your share of taxes that went toward education while still allowing your kids access to public schools. Just as you couldn’t afford to do this for your neighbor, we can’t afford to do it for Europe, and it’s high time that an American president put them on notice.

Of course, we ought not to risk the entire Western alliance on nickels and dimes, but we can’t endlessly allow this free ride to continue, either. It will be a delicate balance that will require negotiating both domestic politics and international diplomacy, but if this administration can even the playing field within NATO, they ought to be applauded for it. That will be no easy task, but with the mix of a relatively successful global economy and dual threats from Russia and the Middle East, Europe might be exactly the right combination of spooked and prosperous to play along.

It’s easy to forget now, but though Barack Obama might have been more popular abroad, his foreign policy was hardly beloved at home. He earned plenty of justifiable criticism for his willingness to negotiate with countries that hate us, like Iran and Cuba. It’s important to keep that in mind as we evaluate Trump’s actions abroad.

It used to be said in this country that politics stopped at the water’s edge, but since the end of the Cold War that has largely fallen by the wayside. This isn’t a bad thing – indeed, it’s healthy for the country to debate foreign policy. The important thing is that we recognize the difference between everyday diplomacy and existential threats, not that we squash all dissent on foreign affairs.

Jim Fossel, a conservative activist from Gardiner, worked for Sen. Susan Collins. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Twitter: @jimfossel