Foreign leaders try to find their footing with crucial ally: Trump


At their first meeting, the Japanese prime minister presented President Donald Trump with a gold-plated golf club — and when he returned for a second visit, the two played 27 holes in a single day. 

The British prime minister, eager to reaffirm her country's "special relationship" with the United States, made a point of visiting Trump on only his seventh full day in office — and the two held hands as they strolled the West Wing Colonnade.

The latest world leader to come calling will be the head of another steadfast ally, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was one of Trump's campaign trail punching bags ("a disgrace," he said, who was "ruining Germany"). But Merkel touches down eager to move past their rocky start and cultivate a friend in the 45th president. 

Franklin Roosevelt had Winston Churchill. Ronald Reagan had Margaret Thatcher. Bill Clinton had Tony Blair, and Barack Obama had Merkel.

Now, more than seven weeks into Trump's presidency, the question is who, if anyone, might become Trump's confidant on the world stage.

The list of foreign leaders already auditioning to be Trump's B.F.F. is long, with no obvious consensus candidate. (Naturally, the president's critics suggest Russian President Vladimir Putin).

The public and private courtship of the famously mercurial Trump raises several thornier questions: Will the president who defines his worldview as "America First" ever confide in a foreigner? And how can world leaders ingratiate themselves with a man many view as a boorish, truth-challenged bully — but whose friendship they still covet because of the economic and military dominance of the United States? 

"One iron rule or consistent phenomenon of diplomacy is that while the relationships of states have many, many components to them, the personal relationships of the heads of those states are a major, major factor," said Strobe Talbott, a veteran diplomat and president of the Brookings Institution.

Already, the heads of dozens of nations are eagerly trying to establish a personal connection with Trump and his team, testing out various approaches and comparing notes on what they think might work.

The Japanese studied the psychological profile of Trump, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raced to Trump Tower before the new president had even taken the oath of office, to present him with the golf club, valued at $3,755. (During their trip last month to Florida, Trump delighted the Japanese leader when he took a few practice swings with the gilded club, before returning to his usual golf set).

Before Abe's most recent visit, Japanese Ambassador Kenichiro Sasae stressed the importance of "person-to-person" connections. Trump and Abe hit it off so well that after 18 holes at Trump's golf club in Jupiter, the president insisted they play another nine at his club in nearby West Palm Beach. There, rather than a formal luncheon, he and Abe munched from a buffet of hamburgers and hot dogs.

"They are building a really great personal relationship," Sasae said after the visit.

Similarly, British Prime Minister Theresa May jetted to Washington to build an early rapport with Trump. The image of the two holding hands made the front page of London tabloids, in a sign of just how closely the British follow the "special relationship." They have since spoken privately by phone at least twice.

Some leaders who had strained relations with Obama welcome the chance to turn the page. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was greeted in Washington last month like a conquering hero, and he made a point to celebrate his long personal history with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law and senior adviser.

Some Mexican officials, meanwhile, have been reading Trump's books, in an attempt to better understand him and his negotiating style — and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto has dispatched his ministers throughout the United States on an almost weekly basis to cultivate ties to Trump's government.

And in advance of her official visit to the White House, Merkel is hopeful she can woo Trump. At first blush, she and Trump do not seem to be an obvious pairing. Classically trained as a scientist, Merkel is risk-averse, subdued and rational, while he is brash, a showman and proudly impulsive. 

Despite their differences, however, Trump has been solicitous of Merkel's opinion, and she is regarded as a good listener, having spent a decade dealing with Putin, another male leader with an outsize ego.

"The chancellor comes to Washington with a very open mind-set and a constructive, pragmatic and forward-looking attitude," German Ambassador Peter Wittig said. Noting that the United States is Germany's most important foreign ally, he added, "We want to build on the strong relationship we've had over the past 70 years."

Merkel drew Trump's ire last year, when he railed against Germany's decision to admit Syrian refugees. Their January phone call, the day after Trump signed his controversial first travel ban, was largely cordial, though by some accounts Merkel came across as a bit too strident and lecturing about democratic values and diversity. 

One of Trump's top advisers half-jokingly dismissed Merkel as a "typical liberal woman" — she is actually considered center-right among Western leaders — and compared her unfavorably to Hillary Clinton. "Don't lecture us about values, about who we are and what we believe," said the adviser, who requested anonymity to speak candidly. "That again? As any movie buff knows, the sequel is never as good as the original."

Trump aides said the president is amenable to close friendships but said his approach is colored by his reading of people at a visceral level and a constant search for a good deal.

"He's naturally open to establishing relationships with foreign leaders," said Kellyanne Conway, counselor to the president. "His opening bid is 'America First,' which implicitly means protecting America, her people, her interests, but also her allies."

While Trump is not a globalist, he fancies himself a globe-trotting businessman, with partners and properties spanning continents. 

The president, aides said, enjoys the seriousness and ceremony of bilateral meetings but also tries to lighten the mood. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid a visit last month, Trump ribbed the dashing 45-year-old for being "even better looking than he is," the adviser said. 

But Trump — who dislikes travel outside of his comfort zones — prefers leaders pay homage to him on his home turf. 

"One of the things that people like me have been saying to foreign governments and leaders is, come early, come often," said Stephen J. Hadley, who served as President George W. Bush's national security adviser. "Get to know this president. Try to develop a personal relationship. Get to know his team. These folks are new to government and they will listen."

Trump has held about 100 calls with foreign leaders (40 as president and 60 as president-elect, according to the White House). What matters nearly as much as the substance, aides said, is the tone: He responds favorably if a counterpart is solicitous and respectful and shares his zeal for negotiation. 

"He loves deals," White House press secretary Sean Spicer said. "President Trump is a people person. He's a dealmaker. He's a negotiator. He's a businessman. He understands how to sit in a room and get a deal, and he enjoys it."

But Thomas E. Donilon, Obama's former national security adviser, cautioned that fruitful foreign alliances are about far more than deals.

"These are not zero-sum, bilateral, transactional relationships, one-by-one through deals," Donilon said. "They are bigger and broader than that. They are about shared commitment to each other's prosperity. That's a conceptual thing the administration will have to work through."

A series of upcoming elections abroad - the Dutch head to the polls Wednesday and the French next month for their first round, while Germany and South Korea vote later this year — could elevate new leaders. Trump, who supported Britain's Brexit vote, is drawn to populist disrupters like himself and could find common cause with someone like France's Marine Le Pen, leader of the ring-wing National Front.

"You'd have to go around the world and ask yourself, who might he see as a fellow disrupter?" said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. "It's hard to answer that question, but that's his default position."

Some nations that have not always been natural U.S. allies are cautiously optimistic. In the Persian Gulf, for instance, where political leaders have long dealt with oligarchs, some view Trump as a familiar type, Haass said. Unlike his immediate predecessors, who were eager to export democratic ideals, Trump so far has shown little interest in spreading American values abroad.

"Some of the authoritarians in the Middle East or elsewhere around the world are unlikely to get lectures from Donald Trump about human rights or political reform, so that might open some possibilities," Haass said. 

Trump's most complex relationship is with Putin, considering the former's refusal to publicly criticize the latter as well as Russia's alleged orchestration of cyberattacks to try to influence the U.S. presidential election in Trump's favor. Though the specter of Russia has muddied his young presidency, Trump has said he admires Putin's leadership strength.

"Putin is all about face time, one-on-one with a leader, out at his dacha, man-on-man," said Michael McFaul, former U.S. ambassador to Russia under Obama. But, McFaul added, while the two men seem to have superficial similarities, he views Putin as more savvy than Trump.

"Putin is a guy who may speak frankly and all that, but he does his homework and he thinks strategically and he doesn't have these kinds of emotional relationships with leaders," McFaul said. 

Another consequential relationship is Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping. So far, their dealings have been sparse and frosty. Although Trump tried to placate Xi by reaffirming the one-China policy — after wavering on it with a phone call to the leader of Taiwan — he will still need to learn to coexist with the authoritarian Xi, who has grand ambitions for China's rise. 

For now, Trump's closest friend seems to be a leader without an official job: Nigel Farage, the former head of the U.K. Independence Party who led the Brexit movement but no longer leads his party. Trump and Farage see themselves as ideological soul mates. Trump has suggested that Farage would make a good British ambassador to the United States, and the two recently dined together at Trump's Washington hotel.

In London, the Farage-Trump bromance — which casts a shadow over Trump's burgeoning partnership with May, the country's actual prime minister — is seen as perplexing. 

Christopher Meyer, former British ambassador to the United States, said he finds the global quest to befriend Trump "wholly unpredictable." Speculating on how Trump and May might get along, Meyer pondered historical U.S.-U.K. relationships, such as Thatcher and Reagan, as well as Blair with both Clinton and Bush.

"You could never identically replicate relationships," said Meyer, who first introduced Blair to Bush. "So the notion that we can re-create Maggie and Ron or Tony and Bill or Tony and George is fanciful."


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