Analysis: On this Trump trip, low drama, signs of acceptance
WASHINGTON — If there has been a constant to President Donald Trump’s tumultuous first two years in office, it has been that his foreign trips have tended to be drama-filled affairs — the president barreling through international gatherings like a norm-smashing bull, disrupting alliances and upending longstanding U.S. policies. But at this year’s Group of 20 summit, Trump appeared to settle in among his global peers.
A brisk two days in Argentina saw Trump reach a trade cease-fire with China and sign a three-way trade deal with Mexico and Canada. With little public spectacle, he joined the leaders of the other member nations on the traditional group statement. He buddied up with traditional allies and largely avoided controversial strongmen. Faced with Russia’s spiking aggression in Ukraine, he canceled his sit-down with Vladimir Putin. And when former President George H.W. Bush died, Trump gave respectful remarks and canceled what would likely have been a raucous press conference.
All told, for the often-undisciplined leader, the whirlwind trip was an unusual moment of zen.
Trump’s election forced the world to reckon with sweeping populist movements and the impacts of globalization. In the first two years of his presidency, he has brusquely rejected international engagement for what he views as a single-minded focus on U.S. national interests.
Adapting: Public and private interactions with world leaders over his 48 hours in Argentina demonstrated Trump does have the capacity for restraint. And other world leaders, for their part, showed grumbling acceptance of Trump’s untraditional stylings.
It’s hardly as though Trump has suddenly abandoned his “America First” world view. But rather than challenge him at every turn, other leaders appear to be adapting to Trump, mindful that multilateral deals are weaker without the United States. Delegation “sherpas” worked through the night to rework the joint communique so that it would be amenable to Trump, and allies knew to butter Trump up with over-the-top praise.
“From the outset, I would like congratulate you on your historic victory in the midterm election in the United States,” declared Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the start of their meeting Friday. He made no mention of the big electoral gains that Democrats notched in the U.S. House. Abe has long proven to be the world leader most adept at keeping on Trump’s good side, but even more challenging relationships appeared to find firmer ground. Trump’s meeting with German Chancellor Angela Merkel was outwardly all smiles, handshakes and praise.
The G-20 joint statement included U.S.-preferred language on reforming the World Trade Organization — something Trump demanded — and made note that the U.S. opposed the Paris climate agreement, which the president has announced plans to exit.
French President Emmanuel Macron called it a victory that the U.S. signed on to the statement at all, given the tensions going into the talks, saying: “With Trump, we reached an agreement. The U.S. accepted a text.”
Frustration: American allies did express mild frustration with Trump at times. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at the signing of the revised North American trade pact, needled “Donald” over U.S. tariffs on Canadian aluminum and steel.
But Trump, for his part, played the role of gracious victor, proclaiming that he and Trudeau, along with outgoing Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto, were battle-tested friends. The new trade accord was a long-sought win for Trump, who as a candidate had promised to reform NAFTA, and he embraced its arrival as vindication of his abrasive negotiating tactics.
Most notably, Trump largely kept his distance from Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He made small talk with the two strongmen, but toed the line on a Western freeze-out of the pair — the former over Russia’s recent seizure of three Ukrainian naval vessels and their crews, and the latter over the murder two months ago of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The president arrived back in the United States early Sunday, with a week of mourning for Bush ahead, a government funding fight on the horizon and more to come from the Russia investigation. The question now, as always, is just how long can this moment last?