One question about President Donald J. Trump obsesses foreign governments more than any other: Will this president, who campaigned as an “America First” insurgent, continue to trample norms in office?
Strikingly often, foes and friends answer this in different ways.
Such hostile or rival powers as China, Iran and Russia increasingly find that Trump’s policies resemble those pursued by his predecessors. Candidate Trump called China a trade cheat, bent on “rape” of the American economy. Trump now calls that country’s leader, President Xi Jinping, a “highly respected” and indispensable partner in efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions—a position not far from that adopted by President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush before him.
Trump aides no longer talk about a grand bargain with Russia, offering President Vladimir Putin a free hand in Ukraine in exchange for iron-fisted support in the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. A loud advocate for such a deal, former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, was fired for lying about contacts with Russian envoys.
Nor has Trump torn up the Obama-era deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear program, although he calls it a “disaster”. Instead he seems minded to buttress it with sanctions targeting Iranian misconduct in other fields, a policy that his former opponent Hillary Clinton favored.
Often Trump’s worldview has not so much evolved as collided with reality. That process is welcomed in such friendly capitals as Berlin, but maintaining amicable ties with this president still feels anything but straightforward.
Official Berlin is glad that Trump takes a more conventional view of America’s interests than it once feared. There is less confidence that he respects the values underpinning the rules-based, Western-led international order, however. Germans are dismayed by Trump’s tolerance for authoritarian strongmen, from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey to President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, whose blood-soaked campaign against drug dealers earned him Trump’s praise on April 29 and a White House invitation. The mood in official Berlin is best described as relief mixed with real sadness.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany prepared meticulously for her first meeting with Trump on March 17. Merkel has spent a career handling swaggering men, from German political rivals to Putin. Her aim was not to befriend Trump, who as a candidate called her refugee policies “insane”, but to suggest where he might be misjudging America’s interests.
Team Merkel knew that Peter Navarro, a senior White House trade adviser, holds that Germany’s success as an exporter to America is explained by manipulation of the European single currency and by cunning Teutonic negotiators who outsmarted Obama and previous presidents. Trump favors bilateral trade pacts, believing that America suffers when many countries cram into one negotiating room. Merkel duly explained that Germany does not negotiate trade pacts or control its currency, ceding authority on both fronts to the European Union (EU). If Trump wants trade talks with only two players, Merkel told him, it is the EU that offers that opportunity.
Trump aides have warned that their boss does not respond well to detail-heavy briefings, preferring stirring stories, pictures and maps. Merkel brought a group of company bosses and apprentices to talk about vocational education. Turning to the agenda of a G20 summit to be held in July, she engaged Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, on the dire risks posed by global pandemics and antibiotic resistance.
Merkel also invited Ivanka to speak at a women’s summit in Berlin. That visit saw the first daughter hissed by some in the audience when she called her father a champion for families.
In common with other foreign visitors to the Trump White House, Merkel found the president a good listener, perhaps because much of what he was hearing seemed new to him. Allies have begun taking advantage of this trait, conferring before visits to reinforce such messages as the need to negotiate with Russia warily and from a position of strength.
Surprisingly wonky subjects pique Trump’s interest: Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen of Denmark told the president how wind power has helped Denmark reduce its carbon emissions while strengthening its economy.
Allies have begun giving much thought to crafting policy wins that Trump can call his own.
Still, public antipathy toward Trump runs deep, which raises the costs of doing business with him. Merkel, for instance, saw the case for increased German defense spending long before Trump demanded that her government pay what he claimed it “owes” to America in Nato contributions. As soon as Trump made defense spending sound so personal, selling Germans on an increase became harder.
Perceptions will be hard to change. As Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of the German parliament and a member of Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, lamented, “Even if Donald Trump turns back to a more normal foreign policy, he will remain a provocative figure in German eyes.”
A Social Democrat on that committee, Dagmar Freitag, is unsure that Germany and Trump “share common values”, making relations “more fragile”.
German leftists who dislike or distrust America face a different puzzle, noted Boris Vormann of the Free University in Berlin. Such skeptics traditionally have raged at the hypocrisy of American claims to moral superiority. Trump makes no such claims, leaving anti-Americans oddly bereft.
Even Trump’s mercurial nature plays differently with friends and foes. It can be helpful to surprise adversaries. Unpredictability is harder for friends to love. Nonetheless, allies know now that Trump is not about to change—and doesn’t see why he should.
Image credits: AP