Trump’s Personalized Foreign Policy

The president seems to base many of his views on how—and whether—he gets along with foreign leaders.

President Trump with Chinese President Xi Jinping during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Nov. 9
AP Photo/Andy Wong
Nov. 17, 2017, 4:44 p.m.

From start to finish, President Trump’s lengthy trip to Asia marked the further personalization of American foreign policy, as the president interpreted every red carpet, military parade, handshake, and welcoming ceremony as signs that “America is back.” In his White House speech wrapping up the trip, he stressed, “Everywhere we went, our foreign hosts greeted the American delegation, myself included, with incredible warmth, hospitality, and most importantly, respect.”

His focus on the ceremonial was signaled during last year’s campaign. In his first major foreign policy address in April, candidate Trump said, “The truth is they [other countries] don’t respect us. When President Obama landed in Cuba on Air Force One, no leader was there—nobody—to greet him. Perhaps an incident without precedent in the long and prestigious history of Air Force One. … It’s called no respect.”

Trump was mistaken in his facts about prior foreign trips, since most presidents had relatively simple arrivals, often late at night, with the formal ceremony later away from the airport. But he left no doubt that, as president, he would demand more ceremonies. Now, after the president’s initial swings through Europe and Asia, it is clear that foreign governments were listening. And the president is pleased. On his final day in the Philippines, he gushed, “It’s a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen. And that really is a sign of respect, perhaps for me a little bit, but really for our country.”

Beyond the ceremonial, the president on the eve of the trip brushed aside concerns that he does not have a fully staffed State Department to help him shape and implement policy. “The one that matters is me,” he told conservative commentator Laura Ingraham. “I’m the only one that matters because, when it comes to it, that’s what the policy is going to be.” He added, “I want my vision.”

“He has personalized foreign policy,” said Daniel Drezner, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. “It is true that any president should have the last say on foreign policy. But most presidents know that you need some kind of institutional apparatus because you can’t say and do everything. Trump has no recognition that that is the case.”

Instead, Trump falls back on his reputation as a deal-maker and counts heavily on his ability to forge close personal bonds with other world leaders. In tweets he wrote within hours of his return to the White House, the president blasted The New York Times for questioning his success in dealing with Chinese President Xi Jinping. The Times, he wrote, “hates the fact that I have developed a great relationship with World leaders like Xi Jinping. … They should realize that these relationships are a good thing, not a bad thing. The U.S. is being respected again.”

Trump is not the first president to seek close ties with foreign counterparts. Often, those have paid off, most memorably during World War II when President Franklin Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill enjoyed a close bond that facilitated their stewardship of the war effort.

More recently, President George H.W. Bush entered the White House with the fattest diplomatic Rolodex after a long career in Beijing, at the CIA, at the United Nations, and as vice president. “The guy’s his own action officer,” Secretary of State James Baker marveled one day. Bush “represents the gold standard,” said P.J. Crowley, who served in President Clinton’s National Security Council and Obama’s State Department. “He had a bushel of established relationships and banked trust when he arrived in the Oval Office. He put them to effective use building the international coalition against Saddam Hussein.”

Crowley noted that all recent presidents have had “a go-to leader who serves as an international anchor. There is a connection, and it can be strategically significant.” For Obama, it was German Chancellor Angela Merkel. For George W. Bush, it was British Prime Minister Tony Blair. For Clinton, it was Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. “Together,” Crowley said, “they got things done.”

Trump entered office with no established relationships overseas. Many foreign leaders understood his emphasis on the personal and rushed to fill that friendship void. First to jump was Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was on a plane to New York within days of the election. Abe saw golf as the best route to Trump’s heart, playing with him in Florida and then in Tokyo. “When you play golf with someone not just once, but for two times, the person must be your favorite guy,” Abe boasted.

During the Clinton years, Singapore Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was desperate to do an end-run around the State Department to the president to improve relations with his country. “We could not get through the White House gatekeepers,” he recalled later. His first break came when he had a chance to play golf with Clinton at the APEC summit in Vancouver in 1997. That got him an invitation to the White House. Then, three years later, with relations again strained, he persuaded Clinton to join him for golf in Brunei after another summit. The game was after midnight and under the lights. The result this time was Clinton’s agreement to negotiate a free trade deal.

In the last five decades, no foreign leader has worked harder to showcase a personal relationship with an American president than the Japanese prime minister. Yasuhiro Nakasone boasted of a “Ron and Yasu” relationship with President Reagan. Junichiro Koizumi introduced himself to George W. Bush by praising his favorite movie, High Noon, and the two men bonded over Koizumi’s love of Elvis Presley.

Obama, in many ways, was the opposite of Trump. In 2013, James Steinberg, Obama’s deputy secretary of State, acknowledged to The New York Times that diplomacy through personal friendship was “not President Obama’s style.” His view, said Steinberg, was that foreign leaders “do what they believe is in the interest of their country and they’re not going to do it differently just because they have a good relationship with another leader.”

Now, Trump is trying to prove the opposite, that good personal relationships can bend rivals to the U.S. view. The initial results are unclear. The White House believes Xi and China are helping deal with North Korea. Drezner believes Trump errs when he takes personal treatment as a measure of the relationship. “When a foreign leader rolls out a red carpet, Trump says, ‘Oh, my God, relations are great now’ … without recognizing there isn’t any actual change in policy,” Drezner said.

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