Trump’s shifting attitudes toward foreign partners

Trump’s shifting attitudes toward foreign partners

In the last fortnight, the world has watched as US President Donald Trump somewhat grumpily attended an elite meeting of traditional allies and then happily held a historic summit with the leader of North Korea. Two photos in particular demonstrated the unusual juxtaposition: One from the G7 meeting showing German Chancellor Angela Merkel and other leaders intently facing Trump with his arms crossed, and another showing Trump smiling while shaking hands with Kim Jong Un. 

When Trump first came into office, some traditional US allies were worried. Trump’s language during his campaign — including his position on trade and “America first” approach — created concern and even disdain in parts of the world. Nonetheless, leaders of long-standing US partners took a pragmatic approach and tried to quickly develop relationships with Trump, while trusting that deep institutional relationships between the US and their country would overcome any problems. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his election and has worked hard to develop a close relationship with him. In July last year, French President Emmanuel Macron impressed Trump with a large-scale Bastille Day parade and launched what appeared to be a successful charm offensive. Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau also tried to get along well with Trump.

The success of these efforts was questionable early on. A year ago, Trump decided to withdraw the US from the Paris Agreement, putting Washington at odds with almost the entire world on climate change. During his campaign, Trump called NATO “obsolete” and, as president, he did not clearly commit to Article 5 of the NATO charter, which guarantees mutual defense of NATO members, until nearly six months into his presidency. Trump has repeatedly been reluctant to clearly condemn Russian interference in European and US elections and other actions that negatively affected US allies. Instead, earlier this month, on his way to the G7 meeting, Trump called for inviting Russia back into the elite group, even though it was expelled from the G8 in 2014 after it invaded Ukraine and annexed Crimea. 

Despite these problems and Trump’s unpopularity among publics in Western Europe, Canada and Japan, US relations with traditional allies under the Trump administration continued largely as before — until the last few weeks. In May, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal and US officials suggested that European companies involved in Iran could soon face secondary US sanctions. French, German and British leaders had worked hard to persuade Trump to remain in the deal and the US withdrawal was a particularly strong indication that the efforts of European leaders to maintain influence in the White House under Trump was failing. 

In March, the Trump administration decided to impose new steel and aluminum tariffs worldwide. These tariffs — more than any previous Trump decision — have badly damaged relations with Canada and the EU.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

The bigger blow to traditional US alliances came in the form of trade tariffs. In March, the Trump administration decided to impose new steel and aluminum tariffs worldwide. These tariffs — more than any previous Trump decision — have badly damaged relations with Canada and the EU, which are threatening retaliatory measures. Trump has also threatened new automobile tariffs that would hurt Canada, Mexico, Germany and Japan most of all. 

The combination of tariffs and other points of contention led to the tense atmosphere at the G7 summit. After the meeting, there was an exchange of insults between the US and some of its allies, especially after Trudeau said, in response to US actions, that Canadians “will not be pushed around.” This particularly angered Trump, who called Trudeau “very dishonest (and) weak” on Twitter, and then later said Trudeau’s comments would “cost a lot of money for the people of Canada.” Senior trade advisor Peter Navarro went further, saying “there’s a special place in hell” for Trudeau for engaging in “bad faith diplomacy” with Trump, though Navarro later (sort of) apologized.

US relations with traditional allies in Asia are also suffering. Despite Abe’s extensive efforts to flatter and relate to Trump, it is increasingly clear that he lacks influence, as Japan is subject to new US tariffs and appears to have very little influence on Trump’s approach toward North Korea, which has direct security implications for Japan. 

Meanwhile, relations with South Korea are complicated. The government and much of the public appear happy that talks between Washington and Pyongyang are proceeding. However, Trump earlier called off the summit with Kim, apparently without first alerting Seoul. After the summit actually occurred, Trump announced the cancelation of joint US-South Korean military exercises, again taking his country’s ally by surprise. 

The US still has allies. Relations with Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE, for example, are strong. And ties with traditional allies are technically still intact: the US is still in NATO; it remains in NAFTA for now; and it still has large military forces in South Korea and Japan. However, only a year-and-a-half into Trump’s presidency, he has shown a clear willingness to ignore the norms and relationships that have guided US foreign policy for decades. Traditional allies can no longer assume a stable US partnership.

Last week, Trump tweeted that Kim is “negotiating in good faith.” This came only a few days after Navarro referred to Canada’s leader as “bad faith Justin Trudeau.” Trump’s embrace of a historic US enemy and rejection of a traditional ally highlights the change in attitudes toward foreign partners under his presidency.

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch


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