Concerns on Statecraft
Mr. Trump gets along better with Mr. Macron, a 40-year-old former investment banker and fellow political insurgent who ran for the French presidency as the anti-Trump. Despite disagreeing with him on trade, immigration and climate change, Mr. Macron figured out early how to appeal to the president: He invited him to a military parade.
But Mr. Macron has discovered that being buddies with Mr. Trump can also be complicated. During the Bastille Day visit, officials recalled, Mr. Trump told Mr. Macron he was rethinking his decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord.
That prompted French diplomats to make a flurry of excited calls to the White House for clarification the following week, only to find out that American policy had not changed. White House officials say that Mr. Trump was merely reiterating that the United States would be open to rejoining the pact on more advantageous terms.
But the exchange captures Mr. Trump’s lack of nuance or detail, which leaves him open to being misunderstood in complex international talks.
There have been fewer misunderstandings with autocrats. Mr. Xi of China and King Salman of Saudi Arabia both won over Mr. Trump by giving him a lavish welcome when he visited. The Saudi monarch projected his image on the side of a hotel; Mr. Xi reopened a long-dormant theater inside the Forbidden City to present Mr. Trump and his wife, Melania, an evening of Chinese opera.
“Did you see the show?” Mr. Trump asked reporters on Air Force One after he left Beijing in November. “They say in the history of people coming to China, there’s been nothing like that. And I believe it.”
Later, chatting with his aides, Mr. Trump continued to marvel at the respect Mr. Xi had shown him. It was a show of respect for the American people, not just for the president, one adviser replied gently.
Then, of course, there is the strange case of Mr. Putin. The president spoke of his warm telephone calls with the Russian president, even as he introduced a national security strategy that acknowledged Russia’s efforts to weaken democracies by meddling in their elections.
Mr. Trump has had a bumpier time with friends. He told off Prime Minister Theresa May on Twitter, after she objected to his exploitation of anti-Muslim propaganda from a far-right group in Britain.
“Statecraft has been singularly absent from the treatment of some of his allies, particularly the U.K.,” said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States.
Mr. Trump’s feuds with Ms. May and other British officials have left him in a strange position: feted in Beijing and Riyadh but barely welcome in London, which Mr. Trump is expected to visit early next year, despite warnings that he will face angry protesters.
Aides to Mr. Trump argue that his outreach to autocrats has been vindicated. When Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman visited the White House in March, the president lavished attention on him. Since then, they say, Saudi Arabia has reopened cinemas and allowed women to drive.
But critics say Mr. Trump gives more than he gets. By backing the 32-year-old crown prince so wholeheartedly, the president cemented his status as heir to the House of Saud. The crown prince has since jailed his rivals as Saudi Arabia pursued a deadly intervention in Yemen’s civil war.
Mr. Trump granted an enormous concession to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he announced this month that the United States would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he did not ask anything of Mr. Netanyahu in return.
That showed another hallmark of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy: how much it is driven by domestic politics. In this case, he was fulfilling a campaign promise to move the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. While evangelicals and some hard-line, pro-Israel American Jews exulted, the Palestinians seethed — leaving Mr. Trump’s dreams of brokering a peace accord between them and the Israelis in tatters.
With China, Mr. Trump’s cultivation of Mr. Xi probably persuaded him to put more economic pressure on its neighbor North Korea over its provocative behavior. But even the president has acknowledged, as recently as Thursday, that it is not enough. And in return for Mr. Xi’s efforts, Mr. Trump has largely shelved his trade agenda vis-à-vis Beijing.
“It was a big mistake to draw that linkage,” said Robert B. Zoellick, who served as United States trade representative under Mr. Bush. “The Chinese are playing him, and it’s not just the Chinese. The world sees his narcissism and strokes his ego, diverting him from applying disciplined pressure.”
Mr. Trump’s protectionist instincts could prove the most damaging in the long term, Mr. Zoellick said. Trade, unlike security, springs from deeply rooted convictions. Mr. Trump believes that multilateral accords — like the Trans-Pacific Partnership, from which he pulled out in his first week in office — are stacked against America.
“He views trade as zero-sum, win-lose,” Mr. Zoellick said.
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