SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — For President Donald Trump, a four-day visit to Asia is shaping up to be more about relationships than results.
In Japan for the Group of 20 summit, Trump notched few identifiable accomplishments on a range of pressing challenges as he savored the show of diplomatic backslapping.
He went into his meetings with friends and foes alike against the backdrop of global crises, from Iranian aggression to Russian election meddling. Eager to avoid a repeat of his past tumultuous international summit visits, Trump traded hard-nosed negotiations for compliments and sidestepped thorny issues in public with even the most troublesome of global figures.
After meeting with Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, Turkey’s Recep Tayyep Erdogan and China’s Xi Jinping, all of whom have authoritarian tendencies, the president invoked the imperative of strong relationships nine times in a closing news conference at the G-20. “I really have a good relationship with everybody,” he said.
Then he moved on to South Korea, holding out hope for another chance to show off what may be his “Art of the Handshake.” He invited North Korea’s Kim Jong Un to join him for a quick exchange of greetings at the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone.
The prioritization of personal ties over concrete achievements revealed the unexpected flip side to Trump’s transactional view of foreign policy. Despite his reputation as a dogged negotiator, he often frames developing connections with world leaders as an end unto itself.
“We have a great relationship and that’s very important, whether you have a place like Saudi Arabia, in all fairness, or China, or North Korea, or any country,” Trump said. “Otherwise you end up in a lot of very bad wars and lots of problems.”
At the same time, though, Trump hasn’t hesitated to insult and undercut some of America’s closest allies, straining ties with partners such as France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Germany’s Angela Merkel. He publicly aired grievances against Japan, Germany and India in the days leading up to his trip to Asia. During his travels, he directed valuable attention to weighing in on domestic issues and U.S. politics — a focus that otherwise could have been devoted to diplomacy.
In Osaka, Trump’s cultivation of world figures played out in ways big and small. In a meeting with Merkel, he set aside concerns about Germany’s defense spending. He was cavalier with Putin about the issue of Russian interference in American elections, which U.S. intelligence agencies fear will occur again in 2020.
“I honestly don’t know what Trump’s goals are,” said Michael McFaul, ambassador to Russia under President Barack Obama. “He defines a good meeting and a positive relationship with Putin as the goal. That should be the means to achieving the real goals.”
Trump praised the summit host, Japan’s Shinzo Abe, for his hospitality. Trump fondly recounted to Xi the red carpet welcome granted to the American nearly two years ago when he visited Beijing. As he and Xi declared a cease-fire in their countries’ trade war, Trump enthused that “Chinese culture is an incredible culture,” and repeatedly called Xi his friend.
Trump aides contend that he is taking the long view on personal diplomacy, believing that while it may seem at odds with his oft-invoked “America First” worldview, it did create images of statesmanship that contrast with the political infighting among the Democrats back home looking to replace him.
Critics deride it as a “Trump First” policy, in which a few flattering words can buy an adversary Trump’s silence.
Either way, the affirmations of friendship haven’t yet correlated with results. That reality was at the fore as Trump expressed hope for a meeting with Kim at the Demilitarized Zone on Sunday.
U.S.-North Korean talks on nuclear issues and even the repatriation of Korean war remains have broken down in recent months after the failure of their second summit in Hanoi in February. But Trump is eager for the historic image at the DMZ — he said Saturday that he would welcome becoming the first U.S. president to step over the border into North Korea — and hopes it can help jump-start negotiations he once believed could deliver him a Nobel Peace Prize.
The mere invitation from Trump marks a significant propaganda victory for Kim, who has long sought and been denied recognition on the international stage. Trump has made clear he considers Kim a friend, even as the North has resumed some ballistic missile testing in recent months that Trump’s national security adviser, John Bolton, contends violated U.N. sanctions.
Trump has often placed a priority on close ties over matters of principle, arguing it pays off in the long term. After his meeting with the Saudi crown prince, the president falsely claimed that “nobody so far has pointed directly a finger at the future king of Saudi Arabia” in the murder of journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Khashoggi.
U.S. intelligence agencies have assessed that the prince must have at least been aware of the plot. Trump’s willingness to embrace the royal helped clear the transformation of the Saudi leader from international pariah to member of the club in Osaka.
In his meeting with Erdogan, Trump did raise the issue of Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made surface-to-air-missiles, which his administration has warned would imperil the sale of F-35 Joint Strike Fighters to the NATO ally. But Trump broke with other U.S. officials to strike a sympathetic tone, blaming Obama for not approving the sale of U.S.-made missiles. “It’s a mess,” Trump said. “And honestly it’s not really Erdogan’s fault.”
Trump also said Turkey has a less-than-stellar human rights record but he made clear that, unlike previous U.S. presidents who would use the moment to set an example on American values, this blot would not deter their relationship.
“He’s tough, but I get along with him,” Trump said. “Maybe it’s a bad thing, but I think it’s a good thing.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — Zeke Miller and Jonathan Lemire cover the White House for The Associated Press.
An AP News Analysis