President Donald Trump is confounding foreign policy norms by turning his back on some of America’s closest friends – even as he reaches out to longtime U.S. rivals.
Trump arrived at the G-7 summit in Canada on Friday as an outcast among close U.S. allies exasperated over his recent foreign policy moves, from exiting the Iran nuclear deal to slapping tariffs on their exports.
The president only heightened their alarm hours before his arrival in Quebec, when he declared that Russia should be readmitted to the club of major economic powers four years after its expulsion for annexing Crimea in 2014. Trump also reportedly continues to pursue an in-person meeting with President Vladimir Putin, whom he invited to the White House earlier this year.
Trump will leave Canada on Saturday morning, before the end of the summit, and fly to Singapore for a meeting with one of the few leaders even more isolated and resented than Putin: North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, arguably the world’s premier human rights abuser.
One senior administration official joked on Friday that Trump couldn’t wait to ditch the G-7 confab, where the president knows he’s disliked, and head for what he expects will be a friendlier reception from the North’s fearsome dictator.
But that’s not entirely a joke.
“He prefers strongmen to democratic leaders,” said Thomas Wright, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Trump’s foreign policy.
The feeling is mutual: While leaders like Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, President Emmanuel Macron of France and Chancellor Angela Merkel Germany struggle to conceal their disdain for Trump’s populist impulses and brutish manner, Putin and Kim are delighted by the U.S. president’s overtures and seem eager to spend time with him.
During a visit to Austria this week, Putin reportedly asked the country’s chancellor to host a meeting between Trump and the Russian leader in Vienna this summer.
It’s unclear whether that will happen.
But on Friday morning Trump once again made clear his irrepressible desire to normalize relations with Moscow, less than three months after the U.S. and Europe expelled dozens of Russian diplomats as punishment for the attempted murder of a former Russian spy on British soil, an act widely attributed to the Kremlin.
“Why are we having a meeting without Russia being in the meeting?” Trump asked reporters before his departure to Canada. “They should let Russia come back in. . We should have Russia at the negotiating table.”
Trump underscored the point with language that echoed years of rhetoric from Putin and other Russian officials, who insist that Moscow is a major world power whose global role can’t be ignored by the U.S. and Europe.
“You know, whether you like it or not – and it may not be politically correct – but we have a world to run,” Trump added.
A day earlier at the White House, Trump also spoke in terms that must have been satisfying to Kim, who North Korea-watchers say is trying to refashion his image from cruel tyrant to man of peace and economic reform.
“I really believe that Kim Jong Un wants to do something,” the president said. “I think he wants to see something incredible happen for the people of North Korea.”
There are good reasons to make peace with Putin and Kim. Both possess nuclear weapons, and their hostility with the U.S. complicates other American goals, like relations with China and ending Syria’s long civil war. A breakthrough with North Korea, in particular, would avert what appeared to be the brewing prospect of nuclear conflict with the Asian nation, albeit one Trump himself had fueled with bellicose rhetoric.
But Trump’s attraction to bad guys – and his seeming contempt for presumed friends whose countries, he feels, take advantage of America – has confounded U.S. foreign policy and left allies guessing at how they should adapt to a deeply unpredictable president.
To be sure, Trump is not even the first president in the past 20 years to fight with some longtime American allies. By the middle of his presidency, George W. Bush’s relations with Western European powers like France and Germany were poisoned over their opposition to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Republicans in Congress even voted that year to rename french fries on the menus of House cafeterias as “Freedom Fries.”
Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, drew a public distinction between “Old Europe” – the Western European countries where Bush grew to be despised – and “New Europe”: former communist countries like Poland and Hungary that were less nettlesome and eager for closer relations with Washington. (In an echo of that attitude, the State Department’s top official for Europe, Wess Mitchell, gave a policy speech in Washington on Tuesday calling for more U.S. engagement with Central and Eastern European nations, where Trump is far more popular than he is in the West.)
Things were so bad that Ivo Daalder, who went on to become President Barack Obama’s ambassador to NATO, wrote in 2003 that “U.S.-European relations are in a deep crisis, a crisis that is worse than any other in the past 50 years.” He added that the Bush administration had “gone out of its way to offend America’s major allies and done little to secure their support.”
But many experts and former U.S. officials argue that the situation is even more fraught today, in part because of Trump’s apparent comfort level with strongmen like Kim and Putin, the latter of whom has worked actively to undermine European unity and democracy.
Trump doesn’t see it that way. Speaking Friday in Quebec alongside Trudeau – who just days earlier had called Trump’s imposition on tariffs on Canadian goods “insulting and unacceptable” – the president breezily and against all evidence declared the U.S.-Canada relationship “probably better, as good or better, as it’s ever been.”
But when a reporter asked Trudeau whether he was disappointed that Trump was leaving the G-7 summit early, Trudeau didn’t answer. “He’s happy,” Trump interjected, sticking out his tongue in an antic gesture to show he was joking.
Trump was happy, too. He would soon be leaving the awkward gathering of angry allies and heading to Singapore for a date with a welcoming dictator.
Eliana Johnson contributed to this report.
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