Indeed, many have entered the Trump administration with ideas of swaying the president with reason and facts and data, only to see their efforts brushed aside in favor of campaign promises. But Trump has since ignored May’s pleas to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, and has repeatedly infuriated her with Call it friends without benefits.
Foreign leaders are learning that hand-holding, golf games, military parades and other efforts to personally woo President Donald Trump do not guarantee that Trump won’t burn them on key policy issues.
Trump calls Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who visits the White House Thursday, his “good friend.” French president Emmanuel Macron is a “great friend.” And Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is a “great friend, neighbor, and ally.” All have sought to butter up Trump through friendly face time, recognizing that the quickest way to the president’s heart is through his ego.
But all, to varying degrees, are exasperated with Trump.
The president is moving ahead with a June 12 summit with North Korea despite Abe’s grave concerns about its wisdom. He has also threatened to slap tariffs on imported Japanese cars and metals. It’s hardly what Abe expected when he became the first foreign leader to meet with Trump after the November election or when he flew with Trump on Air Force One in February 2017 for golfing at his Mar a Lago resort.
Macron treated Trump to a military parade in Paris last summer. He and Trump also exchanged hugs and handshakes during an April visit by the French leader, during which Trump said of his guest: “He is perfect.” But a few weeks later, Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal despite French pleas, and shows no sign of heeding Macron’s request that he rejoin the Paris climate accords, which Trump rejected last year.
Trump has also threatened trade sanctions on the European Union, and is already slapping them on Canada – prompting Trudeau to call Trump’s tariffs on steel imports “insulting and unacceptable." That’s a change of tune from the early months of Trump’s presidency, when Trudeau avoided criticizing Trump, and even took Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner to a Broadway play in March 2017.
All have paid a domestic political price back home for their efforts to make nice with a highly divisive U.S. president. One French parliamentarian fumed after Macron’s visit that France had “prostituted” and “humiliated” itself.
And they collectively have little to show for it.
“I’m sure that these foreign leaders thought that they were doing what was best for their country and they were trying to game out how to best influence Trump,” said Amanda Sloat, a deputy assistant Secretary of State under President Barack Obama. “It may be that foreign leaders are going through the same learning curve that we’ve gone through in the United States.
Indeed, many have entered the Trump administration with ideas of swaying the president with reason and facts and data, only to see their efforts brushed aside in favor of campaign promises. Senior Trump officials such as Gary Cohn, Rex Tillerson and H.R. McMaster all learned the hard way that Trump is not easily moved.
World leaders seem to be learning the same lesson.
“People think you kiss the guy’s ass you’ll get what you want,” former White House communications director Anthony Scaramucci told the Financial Times. “But it is not as simple as that.”
“Trump is very selfish and I think he views flattery as a one-way street where he gets flattered and then there’s no real reciprocal benefit going back the other direction,” said one former White House official. “If you’re a foreign leader you have to realize if you try to butter up Trump it doesn’t really matter, it’s a one way street.”
To be sure, some world leaders are reaping the benefits of flattery. Saudi Arabia rolled out the red carpet for Trump during his spring 2017 visit and has seen unprecedented support from the U.S. The same largely goes for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
What makes the difference, the former official said, is that those regimes take a transactional approach. Many American allies have relied on appeals to reason, data and shared values.
“If you’re not a despot, you can’t really be transactional,” the former official said.
And Trump was already largely in agreement with those countries before his election. What there is little sign of him doing is softening policy positions because of personal chemistry with a foreign counterpart.
Chinese President Xi Jinping did seem to neutralize Trump’s blistering campaign rhetoric about his country after a chummy April 2017 visit to Mar a Lago, followed last fall by a Trump “state visit-plus” to Beijing.
But since then Trump has courted a trade war with China and approved an official U.S. national security strategy whose tough language about China infuriated Beijing.
Then there’s British Prime Minister Theresa May, who made sure she was the first foreign leader to visit trump after his inauguration. May and Trump were famously snapped holding hands during a walk down the White House colonnade. But Trump has since ignored May’s pleas to preserve the Iran nuclear deal, and has repeatedly infuriated her with public comments about Muslims and terrorism in Britain.
But the clearest example of flattery-gone-nowhere is Macron. The young French president quickly sought to develop a friendship with Trump in the hopes of keeping the US in the Paris climate deal, the Iran nuclear deal and maintaining strong American ties with the European Union and support for NATO.
At first, he seemed to be making some progress.
“Macron was definitely getting more phone calls than other European leaders, so it looked at first like it was paying off,” said Julianne Smith, a former deputy national security adviser to Vice President Joe Biden. “But then it became clear fairly quickly that Macron would not be able to persuade Trump.”
“Other Europeans are looking at that model and claiming that it’s been ineffective,” she added. “And yet they also seem unable to come up with an alternative.”