Trump’s first foreign trip: The deals he’ll try to make and the things that could go wrong

“Hello, world.”
“Hello, world.”
Image: AP Photo/John Minchillo
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Donald Trump and Jimmy Carter have little in common, especially when it comes to foreign policy. The current US president is a deal-making, winner-take-all isolationist; the man who served in the role from 1975 to 1979 is a human rights-loving, conflict-resolving internationalist. But two things bind them this week: Trump is the first president since Carter to (a) make his first foreign trip more than 100 days after taking office, and (b) to not make that trip to a US neighbor.

Instead, on day 120 (May 19th), the famed homebody (paywall) begins a tour of the centers of three major world religions, before meeting with NATO leaders in Brussels and the G7 in Sicily. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said during a press conference on May 16th that the trip has one central purpose: “Conveying a message that America is back” and re-engaging with the world after years of neglect. For those confused with how this message coexists alongside Trump’s “America First” ideology, national security advisor H.R. McMaster explained, “America First does not mean America alone.”

Despite the unorthodox itinerary, says Ian Bremmer, president of Eurasia Group, the trip seems designed to be a “success along the lines of Xi Jinping’s visit” to the US, by focusing on countries where Trump has good relationships. “The Saudis wanted to see the back of Obama; they’re much happier with Trump. [Israeli prime minister] Netanyahu wanted to see the back of Obama; he’s much happier with Trump. The Pope gives nice symbolism,” Bremmer explains.

But, in reality, after a couple of weeks packed with political bombshells, and with fired FBI director James Comey due to testify in front of Congress on May 24, the White House will likely be happy to settle for damage control. ”Given the timing, all you’re gonna be focused on is the latest fuse to drop in the US,” Bremmer said. “If this were an authoritarian state he’d cancel the trip because of concerns about a coup. It’s not, so he can leave and he’ll still be president when he comes back, but it’s clear that there’s not much for him in the trip right now.”

Nonetheless, each leg offers Trump an opportunity to look presidential and proclaim “deals” that could please his base. We canvassed experts on each region he’s visiting to get a sense of what he’ll be aiming for and where he could trip up.

Saudi Arabia

For Riyadh to be the landing spot for Trump’s first foray outside the US is a serious affirmation of US-Saudi relations after a rocky time under president Obama. It’s also an olive branch to the Arab world; while there, Trump will meet with around 50 international Muslim leaders, including the heads of state of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC).

Despite touting a “Muslim ban” throughout his campaign—and having two travel bans nixed by federal courts—Trump shouldn’t expect trouble on the visit, Middle East experts say. The Saudis are delighted he’s coming, all of the Gulf Sunnis desperately want US support against Shia-majority Iran, and Trump is “incredibly popular” in the region, Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for New American Security, said at a recent briefing. “Looking where the Gulf is now, it’s almost where the Europeans might have been six months into the Obama administration—really happy that we have new leadership and somebody different to come and listen to them more.”

Aside from the easy foundations, the trip will be a success if Trump can achieve three things, according to Dennis Ross, who has held senior Middle East policy jobs under three previous presidents:

  1. Security deals that are “not just arms deals” and which show that “more is being done to collaborate on defense in the region.”
  2. New commercial deals and joint investment.
  3. A collective commitment from all the assembled leaders ”to take on the ideology of [ISIL].”

The third aim is the most sensitive. According to national security advisor McMaster, Trump will deliver an “inspiring but direct speech on the need to confront radical ideology” to the gathered leaders, “intended to unite the broader Muslim world against common enemies of all civilization and to demonstrate America’s commitment to our Muslim partners.”

The problem with that plan? That speech is being written by senior adviser Stephen Miller, one of the most hard-right figures in the White House. Miller has a history of alarmism about “Islamo-fascism” and ties to white nationalists. This decision speaks to a problem that, according to Elliot Abrams—a top adviser on Middle East policy under George W. Bush—is rooted in Trump’s domestic political support: ”If he says nothing about Islamist extremism, then I think supporters at home will say he bit his tongue; if he says too much about it, he could conceivably offend some of those who are there.”

However, there’s a linguistic solution to this that could please both the Saudis and Trump’s voter base, says Ross: framing it as a “radical Islamist threat.” “Islamist is an ideology, Islam is a religion. Islamists are using Islam for the purpose of controlling power, policy, and every aspect of one’s life,” says Ross, now at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So when you say ‘radical Islamists,’ that’s language that will resonate quite well with his hosts and quite well with his base.”

Israel and the Palestinian Authority

While Obama never pushed hard for Israeli-Palestinian peace, Trump has put it firmly on his agenda, delegating it to Jared Kushner, his highly trusted 36-year-old son-in-law and senior adviser. Just by visiting Israel on his first trip, he puts himself in a good position for what Ross says is the first requirement to get anywhere on that matter: “Creating a connection with the Israeli public.”

This is in distinct contrast to Obama, who notoriously snubbed Israel on his first trip to the region, visiting Egypt and Saudi Arabia instead. “He never really overcame that,” says Ross, who was the “point man” on Israeli-Palestinian relations under Clinton and George Bush senior.

However, to actually get something done, Trump will need more than just photo-ops with Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem. One achievement would be to get the two leaders to meet for the first time since 2010, Ross said.

Of course, no peace will happen if concrete steps do not continue after the trip. However, such negotiations need to be slow and deliberate, and that won’t suit Trump, says Goldenberg.

“I have a hard time seeing him being a patient type of leader who says, ‘OK, let’s do some small things on the economic side and, you know, on settlements and on, you know, Palestinian incitement.’ Instead, you could see him going for the big deal, but the situation is just not right for an agreement right now. It’s the opposite of that,” Goldenberg said. “If he ends up successfully restarting a major new process, I think most likely it will end in failure and more problems.”

Pitfalls to look out for? Well, Trump’s leaking of Israeli intelligence to the Russians has reportedly riled Israel’s spies, but it’s likely to be “sorted out” in talks between the two leaders, Ross said. While Trump’s big election promise to move the US embassy to Jerusalem seems to have been abandoned for now, there’s always room for a shock. As the White House correspondent for alt-right publication Breitbart, which has close ties to the administration, reports:

The Vatican

A trip to the Vatican is usually an easy win. You have a lavish ceremony, shake hands with one of the world’s top moral leaders, and leave after a friendly chat. Yet this visit will be at least a touch tougher than usual, for two reasons:

Firstly, as Bremmer puts it, “in many ways the Pope is the antithesis of Trump. He’s concerned about the environment, about structural inequality—these are things Trump has both publicly and privately repudiated.”

Secondly, following their public spat in January 2016—in which Pope Francis questioned Trump’s Christianity and Trump called him ”disgraceful”—these two have the worst relations between a pope and a sitting US president in history, says Massimo Faggioli, a religious historian at the University of Villanova. “That’s a first; for a pope and candidate who was going to be elected president of the US to have exchanged those kinds of messages.”

That said, experts on the Vatican say the only possible problems for Trump would be self-inflicted. “There’s no desire on the part of the Vatican to embarrass the president by insulting him or publicly challenging him,” says Thomas Reese, a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter and author of Inside the Vatican

That doesn’t mean the Pope won’t try to subtly pressure Trump on certain issues in private, though—and Trump’s reaction could go any way imaginable. “If the Chinese president can educate him on North Korea in 15 minutes, hopefully the pope can educate him on some of these issues like climate change and refugees and immigrants and concerns for the poor,” says Reese. “On the other hand, it may be that all the president is interested in is a photo-op and looking presidential. If that’s the case they’ll give him the photo-op and send him on his way.”

NATO Summit, Brussels

European leaders are frantically preparing for Trump’s first NATO summit, reportedly shortening speeches to three or four minutes in order to keep his attention. Having made a point of berating the alliance during his presidential campaign, Trump reversed his position after meeting NATO secretary general Jens Stoltenberg in April, saying ”it’s no longer obsolete.”

That’s not enough to calm the rest of the allies, though, says Judy Dempsey, a senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor of Strategic Europe. “They have no idea what he’s going to say—he’ll probably ask for more spending but there’s a lot of nerves,” she said.

The US has long complained that its European allies don’t follow through on their NATO defense spending commitments of 2% of GDP. Despite Trump’s reversal on NATO, the White House fired a warning shot this week at Europe via French TV:

In reality, Bremmer says he’d be “very surprised” if the US were to make any move towards leaving NATO. “He’s got bigger problems, and doesn’t really know anything about NATO,” he said. ”Most of his key advisers don’t really want to change things—I think he’d rather pretend he has a win, saying: ‘They’re spending more and it’s because of me.'”

What’s more, if Trump throws his toys out of the pram with an alliance set up originally to defend against the Soviet threat, it could stoke suspicions that the Trump campaign has ties with Russia, says Mark Galeotti of the Institute of International Relations in Prague. “People I’m speaking to say chaos in Washington actually works to NATO’s advantage,” he says. “Trump is not going to do anything to be seen to be undermining NATO because that will play to the whole question of, ‘Who is he: president of the United States or the Russian Federation?'”

The general consensus is the Europeans will essentially present Trump with a nicely packaged offer of more spending, but one that is little different than what they were planning to do anyway. “I don’t think they’ll offer much at all—Stoltenberg, who is very charming, will say, ‘We’re spending more, we’re on target,’ and there’ll be lots of reassurances from the allies,” says Dempsey. In any case, she points out, there’s not much point in blindly lifting spending to 2% unless the Pentagon and other allies take the time to work out where to put that money.

G7 Summit, Sicily

A multilateral summit, with little clear agenda, there’s no expectations that Trump will leave Sicily waving some kind of deal. As Bremmer puts it, “Things don’t happen in the G7—that’s not how it was set up.” McMaster has said Trump will “address unfair trade practices,” but beyond some grandstanding there, this is really a chance for him to work on his personal chemistry with the world’s leaders. That includes a first meeting with new French president Emmanuel Macron and the chance to improve his uneasy relationship with Germany’s Angela Merkel.

More revealing, though, will be how the other leaders will treat Trump, given the investigations and talk of impeachment in Washington. “A lot of these countries will be wondering not only about their relationship to the United States, but also how long this guy’s gonna be around,” Bremmer said. “You wanna watch whether countries are hedging more against the United States; to what extent Trump doesn’t look like a leader.”