Analysis

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
George E. Condon Jr.
Add to Briefcase
George E. Condon Jr.
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.”

What We're Following See More »
MCCONNELL WANTS A TREATY
Senators Want to Rubber Stamp Any North Korean Deal
5 days ago
THE LATEST

"As Trump signed a joint statement with Kim Jong Un that offered few details on how the North Korean leader would make good on his vow to denuclearize, Republicans on Capitol Hill said Tuesday that they want and expect the White House to submit any final agreement for their approval." Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called for any agreement to be in the form of a treaty.

Source:
UNLESS NEGOTIATIONS GO BADLY
Trump To Halt “War Games” On Korean Peninsula
5 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump announced that the United States will suspend "war games" with South Korea, which are "inappropriate" given his meeting with North Korean leader Kim-Jong Un. "We will be stopping the war games which will save us a tremendous amount of money," said Trump, "unless and until we see the future negotiation is not going along like it should." The military exercises "carried out each year by the US and South Korean militaries have been consistently cited by Pyongyang as a US rehearsal for war, and a reason it needs to build a nuclear arsenal."

Source:
“VERY TALENTED MAN”
Trump Praises Kim After Meeting
6 days ago
THE LATEST

President Trump "heaped praise on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on Tuesday, calling him 'a very worthy, very smart negotiator' and vowing to meet with him 'many times.' Speaking to reporters in Singapore after his landmark summit with Kim, Trump said that he found the North Korean premier to be a 'very talented man' who 'loves his country very much.'"

Source:
BACKDROP OF COUNTRIES’ FLAGS
Trump, Kim Meet Face to Face
6 days ago
THE LATEST
WILL LEAVE SEVEN HOURS AFTER MEETING STARTS
Kim Moves Up Departure from Singapore
6 days ago
THE LATEST

Welcome to National Journal!

Enjoy this featured content until June 19, 2018. Interested in exploring more
content and tools available to members and subscribers?

×
×

Welcome to National Journal!

Enjoy this premium "unlocked" content until June 19, 2018.

Continue
×

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.

Login