For Trump, Foreign Policy Is Personal

The president’s approach to other countries varies depending on his relationships with fellow leaders, not overarching policy goals.

President Trump meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore.
AP Photo/Evan Vucci
June 12, 2018, 8:01 p.m.

Like no other time in his presidency, President Trump’s intense personalization of foreign policy was vividly on display over the past three days. Between Saturday and Monday, an alternately furious and gleeful president showed that how you treat him has a huge impact on how the world’s only superpower treats you.

Over those three days, in two summits on two continents separated by 6,600 miles and 12 time zones, the president was looking for leaders whom he could call friends. In Quebec, challenged by American allies, he was disappointed. In Singapore, face to face with a ruthless enemy of the United States, he was pleased. And in neither case did he make any diplomatic or face-saving effort to hide his feelings.

His fury first was triggered by Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s comments at the conclusion of the G7 summit in Quebec. As Trump winged his way to Singapore, Trudeau said he viewed U.S. tariffs aimed at Canada as “insulting,” and he added that Canadians “will not be pushed around.” Trump, seeing them on the plane, erupted with a tweet calling Trudeau “very dishonest and weak.” His anger flashed again as he departed Singapore. He spoke of his friendship with the prime minister—but put it in the past tense and warned of consequences. “That’s going to cost a lot of money for the people of Canada,” he said.

Trudeau, of course, was not the only world leader slapped with the title “friend” in Trump’s press conference before leaving for home. Also honored were the prime minister of Singapore, the prime minister of Japan (“a friend of mine”), and the president of China (“a terrific person and a friend of mine”). German Chancellor Angela Merkel fell just short of the friendship level (“a very good relationship”).

Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator who made history when he sat down with the president, also was denied full membership in the Friends of Trump. But, after only the briefest of meetings, he was accorded the same status as Merkel, leader of a longtime American ally. “I think I have a very good relationship with Chairman Kim right now. I really do,” gushed an ebullient president.

Trump brushed aside suggestions that there hadn’t been enough time to make such a judgment. “We got to know each other well in a very confined period of time,” he said, insisting that “adversaries can, indeed, become friends.” He also was willing to move beyond Kim’s well-documented record of egregious human-rights abuses as the world’s last Stalinist. Kim, he said, is “very smart … wants to do the right thing.”

In an interview with Greta Van Susteren for Voice of America, Trump said Kim has “a great personality. He’s a funny guy. … He loves his people.” He added, “I think he liked me and I like him.”

Asked point-blank at his press conference if he trusts Kim, given North Korea’s record of breaking so many promises, Trump replied, “I do. I do. I can only say that I know him … really well.” The answer reminded some critics of one that President George W. Bush regretted giving in 2001 after his first meeting with Russian leader Vladimir Putin. “I looked the man in the eye. I found him to be very straightforward and trustworthy,” said Bush, adding, “I was able to get a sense of his soul.”

Bush’s response is a reminder that Trump is not the first president to bet on personal relationships. Bush’s father, President George H.W. Bush, was considered the master of personal relationships with other leaders and the keeper of the fattest diplomatic Rolodex on the globe, thanks to his years as CIA director, U.N. ambassador, China envoy, and vice president.

Curt Smith, a White House speechwriter for the elder Bush, said the difference between Bush’s and Trump’s personal relations with other leaders is that the other leaders “wanted to help him from years of him helping them.” The telephone, he said, was Bush’s “Excalibur” because he so frequently reached out to others when he didn’t need them. “When he genuinely needed them, they wanted to help him.”

President Reagan’s secretary of State, George Shultz, called the maintenance of relations “gardening” and said it was the key to diplomacy. Trump did not have the benefit of Bush’s many years in the garden. So he has fallen back on his own experience in real estate.

“He brings the salesman’s approach to diplomacy,” said a longtime U.S. diplomat who helps advise the Trump White House and asked not to be named. “For a salesman, everybody is your best friend. What you try to do as a salesman is to disarm and to get them to be more pliable and relaxed so you can make your pitch.” He added, “I don’t think Trump really believes they are friends.”

Peter Feaver, a Duke political-science professor who served on the National Security Council during the Bill Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies, said foreign leaders trying to be Trump’s friend should watch 50 First Dates, the 2004 Adam Sandler movie about dating a woman with amnesia who forgets each date. “Efforts to woo Trump seem to fall in that category,” he said. “The friendship will last for one date and then they have to start over again. It doesn’t produce a lasting friendship.”

The questions left by Trump’s approach are, “Do our friends know they can trust us and do our enemies know they must fear us?” Feaver said. “The last 72 hours would raise doubts on both those questions.”

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