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Trump favors personal connections in his foreign policy

By the time President Trump sat down with the leaders of the world’s other industrialized powers at a former monastery here Friday, he already had met and spent time with each individually. The mood around the circular table was one of a “family dinner,” the White House said, with discussions ranging from terrorism and trade to Russia and climate change.

Trump had staked out many seemingly resolute positions on the issues during the course of his campaign, many of them at odds with those of longtime allies. But as the president has listened to his counterparts, his views were “evolving,” advisers conceded.

“He came here to learn and get smarter,” Gary Cohn, the director of the White House National Economic Council, told reporters Friday, at the end of the first of two days of meetings of the Group of Seven leaders.

Trump’s uniquely personalized style, which seems to value one-on-one relationships over policy or politics, has endured its most extensive test this during his inaugural eight-day international trip, which comes to a close Saturday. Though his first months in office have provided plenty of evidence for the power of personality in the president’s world view, the Trump touch was on full display over the past week from Riyadh to Rome, Brussels and Sicily, flavoring what Trump said to whom.

To a degree not seen in earlier presidents, Trump seems to define his progress chiefly in whether he likes foreign leaders he meets — and they him.

But in this debut trip, and in earlier encounters, personal contact only goes so far, and does not necessarily win substantial or long-term achievement.

Trump has repeatedly reversed himself on strongly stated positions after meeting personally with a foreign principal that was the target of his ire. He had dinner last month with Chinese President Xi Jinping at his Mar-a-Lago estate, and suddenly China was no longer a currency manipulator, as Trump had said time and again during the campaign. He had a face-to-face session with NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg last month, and the alliance “is no longer obsolete,” Trump said, backtracking on an oft-stated campaign trope.

Trump ripped into Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over refugee policy in one of the first telephone calls of his presidency. But when the two met in New York earlier this month, they were suddenly bosom buddies, and Australia no longer is the subject of Trump wrath.

The refugee deal between the Obama administration and Australia, Trump said, was “still ridiculous,” but "we have a very good relationship and I'm very proud of the relationship.”

Trump seems to think his assessment of world leaders is the most important thing, even of those who have an unsavory history or record. Making a fresh start, by his reckoning, will ultimately achieve more than if he followed a conventional path that might, for example, factor the other nation’s human rights abuses into the equation. Witness his professed bonds with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Sisi and Xi.

“Well, the president's quite a communicator,” his secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, said when asked to assess the Trump style. “Which shouldn't surprise you.”

Trump has touted his flexibility as an asset, acknowledging that his views can quickly adapt to changing circumstances. Yet that’s just what some foreign policy analysts are concerned about.

“What we’ve seen is a desire to please, and to end meetings on a positive note,” said Richard Nephew, who served in the State Department during George W. Bush’s administration and on the National Security Council under former President Obama.

“My worry is that translates into making promises that seem like a good idea at the time, which are both expedient [and] also lead to everybody smiling when you walk out of a room, but in the end are either difficult to reconcile or directly contrary to what our interests might be.”

Presidential historian Timothy Naftali described Trump as a chief executive who operates according to emotional temperament rather than “experiential judgment.”

"He is more publicly temperamental than his predecessors," Naftali said, and less likely to give rational explanations to his policies. "This is a president who is unwilling to fully explain his reasoning."

But aides say Trump’s approach was successful for him in business and is already translating to the presidency. They argue that improved personal relationships between Trump and foreign counterparts — primarily those in the Middle East, for now —– have shown great promise for the U.S.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had such a toxic relationship with President Obama that in 2015 he delivered an unprecedented address to Congress, at Republicans’ invitation, expressing opposition to Obama’s top diplomatic priority, a six-nation nuclear pact with Iran. Trump this week called him “Benji,” and expressed hope he might take major strides in pursuit of a Mideast peace deal.

Obama had an uneven relationship with Saudi Arabia, grounded in their differences over the Iran deal, human rights and Saudi military entanglements in Yemen. But Trump over the past week lavished praise on the “very wise” King Salman and signed a multibillion-dollar weapon deal, which will help arm the kingdom in its punishing fight against Houthi militants in Yemen. The topic of human rights did not come up, at least publicly.

Ford M. Fraker, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia late in George W. Bush’s presidency and until just before Obama’s first trip there in 2009, said Obama should have invested more time to develop a personal rapport with Saudi rulers: “Talk about faith, your families, what’s important in your life, and not show up like the lawyer with a check-list of things that you want to achieve.”

If the mutual “likes” made Trump’s days in Saudi Arabia and Israel something of a lovefest — the Saudis welcomed Trump as if he, too, were royalty, and Netanyahu beamed almost adoringly at his side throughout — Trump’s reception has been notably icier in Europe. That reflects not just the concerns of leaders there about Trump’s policies and unpredictability, but also their own domestic political pressures to keep distant from the unpopular American president.

“The risk for European politicians is the closer they get to the Trump administration, and to the Trump administration’s agenda, the greater the risk of some out-of-left-field shift in U.S. policy, leaving them out on a limb,” said Jeffrey Rathke, deputy director of the Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

And if the Europeans kept a certain distance, Trump returned the favor. While he said in the Middle East that he was not there “to lecture,” lecture he did in Brussels to the U.S. allies who are members of NATO. He demanded they spend more on defense and do more in the fight against the Islamic State and declined to clearly pledge to abide by NATO’s mutual defense tenet.

World leaders quickly are adapting to Trump’s style. Many, through their embassies in Washington or with special envoys, are keen to make contact directly with Trump, or at least those very close to him — like daughter Ivanka Trump and son-in-law Jared Kushner — even when that means sidestepping the usual conduits at the State Department.

Mexico, which Trump routinely maligned during the campaign, feels it got something of a reprieve by staking out a personal relationship, in this case that of Mexican Foreign Minister Luis Videgaray with Kushner.

But the trump card is getting close to Trump himself.

The president was on the verge of announcing he would pull out of the North American Free Trade Agreement — until he received phone calls from Mexico’s President Enrique Peña Nieto and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. By that day’s end, the White House announced that instead the president would be negotiating with the two nations on a new trade deal.

Memoli reported from Taormina and Wilkinson from Washington.

michael.memoli@latimes.com and tracy.wilkinson@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememolit, @TracyKWilkinson

 

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An earlier version of this story referred to the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement. It is the North American Free Trade Agreement.

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