In his phone calls with foreign leaders, President Trump has made it abundantly clear that he is less interested in tending America’s long-term relationships than he is in short-term deals.
It was this approach that shone through in Trump’s contentious call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over an agreement that would require the United States to take in 1,250 refugees from an Australian detention center.
Trump railed at Turnbull and accused America’s longtime ally of seeking to export “the next Boston bomber.”
On Thursday, Trump explained his position further.
“Believe me, when you hear about the tough phone calls I’m having, don’t worry about it,” Trump said at the National Prayer Breakfast. “They’re tough. We have to be tough.”
This major shift in approach to America’s allies is reverberating across the world and is forcing some of America’s closest friends to ask whether they need to recalibrate their relationships with Washington.
Similarly, leaked details of a conversation last Friday between Trump and Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto have inflamed public opinion in Mexico, where officials are steeling themselves for radical changes in relations with their northern neighbor.
In the immediate term, the impulse in most capitals will be to work with the new president and hope that his outlook changes as senior officials such as Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson settle into their positions.
“The allies don’t have many good alternatives,” said Tom Wright, director of the Project on International Order at the Brookings Institution. “They will try to limit the damage and fix it.”
Over a longer stretch, foreign leaders may feel heavy domestic political pressure to stand up to Trump, who is deeply unpopular abroad, even if it damages their relationships with the United States.
Trump’s transactional approach could make America’s European allies less willing to support Trump’s priorities, specifically his efforts to increase pressure on Iran or renegotiate trade deals.
Trump’s blowup with Turnbull shocked Australians, who have stood by America’s side in Iraq and Afghanistan and welcomed U.S. Marines as part of a broader effort to boost American influence in Asia and check China.
The call also made waves in Washington, where it was taken by some as more evidence of a sea change in the way the America under the Trump administration will engage the world. “This is really uncharted territory,” said Heather Conley, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Yikes!”
Other analysts played down the call’s significance, saying that it will have zero long-term impact. “Mostly this was Turnbull being an idiot,” said James Carafano, vice president for foreign and defense policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. “He put the president of the United States on the spot in his first phone call.”
Before former president Barack Obama left office, he reached out personally to Turnbull and British Prime Minister Theresa May and asked them to mentor Trump, who was brimming was confidence but inexperienced in world affairs and diplomacy, according to a former senior White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomacy.
Obama believed that the two English-speaking, center-right allies could influence Trump and persuade him to take a more traditional approach to foreign policy, the official said.
In public, Turnbull on Thursday played down any lingering tension with Trump. Earlier in the day, Trump raised doubts about whether he would honor the refugee agreement, tweeting “I will study this dumb deal!”
Turnbull responded by essentially pretending the tweet did not exist.
For now, at least, it looks as if Turnbull’s influence on Trump will be limited to nonexistent. Meanwhile, May seems to be paying a political price back home for her quick visit to the White House and efforts at smooth relations with the Trump administration. A petition calling on Britain to cancel Trump’s state visit surged past 1.5 million signatures amid the furor over his executive order to temporarily prevent people from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States.
News of the Mexico call was plastered on the front pages of Mexican newspapers. Some Mexicans considered the phone call another blow for Peña Nieto, as it appeared he was enduring more bullying from Trump. Peña Nieto canceled a planned visit to Washington last week after a dispute over who would pay for a proposed border wall.
Trump told Peña Nieto that “you have some pretty tough hombres in Mexico that you may need help with” and added that “we are willing to help with that big-league,” according to a transcript published by CNN.
Some Mexican politicians demanded more details about the call, while others insisted that Peña Nieto should keep such sensitive discussions out of the public eye.
Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a leftist leader and possible presidential candidate in the 2018 elections, described the call as a “humiliation” for Peña Nieto.
Trump is “a president who doesn’t seem to know the importance of diplomatic relations. He’s demonstrated that not just with Mexico,” Mariana Gomez del Campo, president of the foreign relations commission for Latin America in the Senate and a member of the opposition National Action Party, said in an interview. “It seems that he wants to break relations completely without caring about the consequences.”
Mexico’s National Congress has agreed to dedicate some $50 million to bolster the network of Mexican consulates in the United States to provide legal assistance to Mexican migrants in the United States against the mass deportations Trump has proposed. Lawmakers have vowed to put forth legislation that would prevent any Mexican money from going to pay for the border wall.
“Our country is not powerless,” Gomez del Campo said. “We are going to do everything necessary to defend ourselves. We are united in the face of this threat from Donald Trump, which is a tremendous threat for Mexico.”
Partlow reported from Mexico City.