How to Handle a President Who Doesn't Like Summits

Ahead of the G-20, foreign leaders are mulling the best way to manage Trump's distaste for meetings and multilateralism.

President Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel at a working session at the G-20 summit in Hamburg, northern Germany on July 8, 2017
AP Photo/Markus Schreiber, pool
Nov. 27, 2018, 8 p.m.

President Trump leaves Thursday for one of his least favorite things: an international summit where he must mingle with other world leaders and talk about joint responses to global challenges. This time, it is the G-20 meeting in Buenos Aires, Argentina. To Trump, that means three days listening to other leaders celebrate the merits of multilateralism. And he just doesn’t like multilateralism.

In the past 12 months, the president has tried to defund the United Nations, blasted the European Union, threatened to pull out of the 160-nation World Trade Organization, questioned the NATO alliance, snubbed the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, stayed away from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit, disrupted the G-7, and condemned “globalism.” Earlier in his tenure, he pulled the United States out of multilateral efforts to constrain Iran and combat climate change as well as the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal.

The president has boasted that he is an “open book” who can’t hide it when he is unhappy. Anyone watching him at past summits knows that is the truth. Whether in Paris or Quebec, Canada or Brussels or Da Nang, Vietnam, Trump was clearly displeased at having to share the stage with other leaders, repeatedly blowing up the preset agendas without warning and often sabotaging the usual end-of-summit communiques. He has stayed away from some gatherings and had to be persuaded by his staff to attend others. At almost all of them, he has relished only one aspect of the summits—the opportunity to hold one-on-one meetings with specific leaders.

That, again, is the case in Argentina. The G-20 is an economic behemoth, including 19 countries and the 28-country European Union. At the table will be the representatives of 85 percent of global economic output, two-thirds of the world population, and 75 percent of international trade. But in the days before his Thursday departure for the G-20, the White House has said nothing about the summit agenda, focusing almost all its public attention on the highly anticipated talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

Closing in on two years in office, this is no longer a surprise for the Trump presidency. Other leaders spent the early months after his inauguration probing for the best ways to reach him, most often resorting to open flattery. After repeated failures to keep him on board on Iran, trade, and defense policies, frustrated allies have begun to more openly challenge him, led by Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau of Canada, Emmanuel Macron of France, and Theresa May of Great Britain. That, however, has just made Trump more reluctant to attend summits.

Nowhere is that more dramatic than in the now-chilly Trump-Macron relationship, which Heather Conley, deputy assistant secretary of State for Europe in President George W. Bush’s first term, said has come “full circle” after the French leader decided his “enormous personal investment into a personal relationship” with Trump “did not pay off.” She said that in the past six months, the two men went from a celebration of their friendship to the open acrimony seen when Trump visited Paris two weeks ago.

When Trump arrives in Buenos Aires, she said, he will find more leaders “investing less in the personal dynamics of the president and finding creative coalitions with other countries to further their interests.” It is at a summit like this “where we really see in very stark ways that the ‘America First’ policy is very much a self-isolating policy in a multilateral framework,” said Conley, now director of the Europe Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Of greatest concern to the other leaders is their inability to anticipate what Trump will do at a summit, in part because he so often veers away from what his top advisers have prepared in advance. “They can deal with the administration, for better or worse, through normal channels,” said Thomas Wright, director for the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. “But when it really goes off the rails are at summits.” They have concluded, he said, “that the problems that emerge in the Trump administration are disproportionately when the president is involved or in the room.” For that reason, he said, the allies are trying to reduce the number of summits, pointedly canceling preliminary planning for a summit next year to mark the 70th anniversary of NATO.

Wright added that he is watching to see if the other leaders conclude after this month’s midterm elections that Trump is on the way out. “If they believe he won’t be reelected, do they try to do something now in response ... that they wouldn’t be able to do another time? Do they begin to test him in some way? Do they begin to spring traps or manipulate him?”

They also may look for ways to invigorate a system of multilateral organizations designed by the United States after World War II to keep the peace, and that are now under assault by an American president. Wright said he was optimistic that Buenos Aires will not be “a funeral” for that system. “It may not be a successful summit,” he said, but stressed the other leaders are aggressively lowering expectations. “If we get through the weekend with a series of bilaterals with no real agreement on the communique, or a watered-down communique, it would show that multilateralism is dormant at the moment but not necessarily dead.”

David Dollar, who is now at Brookings but from 2009 to 2013 was the Treasury Department’s economic and financial emissary to China, said serious challenges will remain after Argentina because of Trump. “I don’t think we should write the obituary on the multilateral system just yet,” he said. “But it is reasonable to ask if this system can survive very long without active U.S. participation.”

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