On Monday, President Trump will meet in Helsinki with Russian President Vladimir Putin in a summit intended, as much as anything, to further a friendship Trump has desperately desired at least since he tweeted “will he become my best friend?” five years ago. As the cliched movie poster has it, “This time, it’s personal.”
But with Trump, every time is personal. That, we are coming to realize, is what defines his foreign policy.
If you’ve listened to Trump talk about Putin over the last few years, you’ve seen this again and again. He seldom speaks about relations with Russia in terms of America’s strategic interests — whether they be military or economic or anything else, let alone Russia’s actions. Instead, it’s almost always about whether the two countries, and whether he and Putin particularly, will “get along.” For instance, here are some of his remarks about Putin at a press conference yesterday in Brussels:
He’s been very nice to me the times I’ve met him. I’ve been nice to him. He’s a competitor. You know, somebody was saying, “Is he an enemy?” No, he’s not my enemy. “Is he a friend?” No, I don’t know him well enough. But the couple of times that I’ve gotten to meet him, we got along very well. You saw that.
I hope we get along well. I think we get along well. But ultimately, he’s a competitor. He’s representing Russia. I’m representing the United States. So in a sense, we’re competitors. Not a question of friend or enemy. He’s not my enemy. And hopefully, someday, maybe he’ll be a friend. It could happen. But I — I just don’t know him very well. I’ve met him a couple of times.
In the same press conference, Trump also said “I hope that we’re going to be able to get along with Russia,” “maybe we’ll get along with the group that we’re protecting against” (a reference to NATO and Russia), “I hope that we’ll be able to get along” (referring to himself and Putin), and “I hope we get along well with Iraq.” He also said about China, “China is going to be, I think, very successfully, ultimately, taken care of. I have a great respect for their President, as you know — President Xi [Jinping]. I spent two days there. It was among the most magical two days I’ve ever lived.” In other words, the United States and China can have a successful relationship because Xi showed him a good time.
No one would deny that personal relationships between leaders can be important in foreign relations. But Trump seems to have a view that those relations are almost entirely about personal chemistry, and the primary determinant of how the United States relates to allies, adversaries and every nation in between comes down only to whether he is able to “get along” with the leader in question. It’s a view of foreign policy in which things such as national interests, domestic and global realities, and political circumstances don’t matter. All that’s important is whether, say, the United States and Russia could discover to their pleasant surprise that they both like Hüsker Dü and can’t stand cilantro.
Putin is hardly the only leader to whom Trump applies this principle. Since his meeting last month with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, he has responded to questions about the weakness of the agreement the two signed — in which Kim pledged only “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” an utterly meaningless promise — by stressing how well the two got along. As evidence of Kim’s intent to give up his nuclear weapons, Trump said yesterday, “That was an amazing — really, an amazing meeting, I thought. And I really think that we established a very good relationship.”
Meanwhile, Trump is touting the fact that Kim sent him “a very nice note” about their meeting, as though that shows the fundamental dilemma at work — that the Kim regime believes its nuclear weapons are the ultimate guarantor of its survival, and therefore won’t be willing to give them up for almost anything — can be swept aside if the two men are sufficiently chummy.
I would argue this all has its roots in Trump’s boundless faith in his own compelling personality, the belief that just as he can stroll into a room with a plumbing contractor and squeeze a favorable hourly rate out of him, he can do the same in international diplomacy. And in certain cases, Trump may make this kind of personalization of foreign relations a reality. Not because he can turn adversaries with their own interests into friends, but because he can alienate America’s most critical allies by being a monumental jerk. That may indeed lead them to decide they have to step away from the cooperation that has strengthened both them and us over the last 70 years, because Trump is so erratic and hostile they don’t trust him or think they can work with him.
Donald Trump does indeed have a powerful personality, one that can affect the course of international relations. If only it didn’t do exactly the opposite of what he believes it does.