U.S. President Donald Trump is a firm believer in the great man theory of politics. Throughout the 2016 campaign, he insisted that “I alone can fix” the problems that had robbed the United States of its former glory and that he would “Make America Great Again.” Solving many of those problems demands a partner with whom the president can strike a deal; Trump is convinced that he has a unique ability to forge relationships with world leaders that will advance U.S. interests.
While strong personal ties among leaders can facilitate problem solving, Trump makes those relationships an end in themselves rather than a means to achieve national objectives. He is conflating, if not confusing, his personal relationship with world leaders with advancing the national interest.
In many cases, Trump seems to think his personal relationship, status or standing is the national interest, convinced that close ties with him demonstrate respect for the U.S., elevates his country’s international standing and somehow facilitates the resolution of international disputes on terms more favorable to the U.S.
That approach defines Trump’s outreach to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. After letting himself be provoked by Pyongyang’s misbehavior at the beginning of his term in office — all U.S. presidents have been tested, few took the bait as easily as Trump — he boldly agreed to hold a summit with Kim, a breakthrough sought by every North Korean leader and denied by every U.S. president. Two more meetings followed, and Trump has since called Kim “a great leader,” “very smart,” claimed that he and Kim “fell in love,” and that they “have a fantastic chemistry.”
Trump credits his relationship with Kim for averting a war (forgetting that he was the one who ramped up tensions with Pyongyang, famously insulting the North Korean leader during a United Nations speech and comparing the size of each man’s nuclear button) and taming a regional provocateur. In fact, their “bromance” has had meager results, if any at all.
Pyongyang has not conducted a nuclear or long-range missile test, both of which matter to Trump. Experts believe that Pyongyang hasn’t tested because it no longer needs to; its capabilities are good enough to serve the leadership’s needs. North Korea has relentlessly modernized the rest of its military arsenal while the U.S. has dramatically reduced joint exercises with its ally South Korea. It continues to launch cyberattacks and defies U.N. sanctions.
Seoul and Tokyo fear that Trump only cares about threats to the U.S. homeland, and is prepared to let Pyongyang menace them. Nothing could be more corrosive for U.S. alliances.
His relationship with Kim is the most public of Trump’s attempts to personalize foreign policy, but he has sought to engage a long list of leaders. The most notable are Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. There are several explanations for Trump’s determination to build strong personal ties with these men.
First, there is the lurid rationale: personal interest. It has been speculated or asserted that Trump uses those relationships to advance personal or business interests. The most extreme expression of this is the infamous Steele dossier, which asserts that the Russian government has material to blackmail the president. While this argument is the most salacious, it is also the most far-fetched.
Nevertheless, Trump’s refusal to divest his interest in his companies, his regular visits to Trump properties and the fact that some of those businesses have connections to those governments fuels this suspicion.
A second, and only slightly less disturbing, explanation is that Trump admires their power and authority. Each man dominates his country and is generally considered to be synonymous with his government, if not his nation. They fit Trump’s idealized notion of a leader: a strong individual who dominates a political system and uses it to advance his particular agenda. That most of them are autocrats or dictators, with little regard for rule of law, seems not to register.
The third explanation is the most compelling and it is a function of the power and authority that these men wield: They can help Trump solve problems. Xi can strike a trade deal that will rebalance the U.S. trade accounts that Trump is fixated upon; he can help bring North Korea to the table and settle that nuclear problem (if Trump and Kim can’t work it out themselves).
Bin Salman can assist in containing and restraining Iran, as can Netanyahu. The Israeli prime minister is key to settling the long-standing dispute with Palestinians (as well as is the surrogate for powerful U.S. domestic political interests whose support Trump needs; re-election is another problem). Erdogan is expected to help contain the Syria crisis, as is Putin. Putin is thought to have influence in Tehran too. More importantly, however, Putin can help deal with threats on Europe’s eastern flank, such as Ukraine.
In each case, these leaders can help resolve international problems on the U.S. president’s agenda (and for which he wants to get credit for fixing: he has repeatedly said that a Nobel Peace Prize would be appropriate).
The most troubling question is: What terms will Trump accept to make these problems go away? Will he acquiesce to a North Korean nuclear arsenal as long as Pyongyang can only threaten Northeast Asia with it? How much authority and influence will he cede to Moscow or Beijing in their parts of the world?
If this is Trump’s logic, then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is in trouble. While Abe has set the standard for dealing with the president, there are limits to what the prime minister can do for Trump, an extremely transactional leader. Abe has very little to contribute to the resolution of problems that dominate the president’s agenda. He can’t fix the U.S. trade deficit with China and he has no leverage over Pyongyang.
Abe can help advance U.S. interests: His resurrection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is one shining example, but Trump doesn’t value that. Worse, the one constant in Trump’s thinking over three decades is the belief that Japan has exploited its alliance to Washington’s disadvantage, so Japan can expect Trump to bring all possible pressure on Japan to fix the bilateral trade imbalance. Abe has little leverage to blunt that attack.
It is very much to Abe’s credit that he has built a strong relationship with Trump, especially given the president’s baggage. But that relationship is personal. Japan’s next leader will inherit Abe’s constraints without being able to claim the same friendship. It will have to be rebuilt and Trump will use his relationship with Abe as a benchmark; Japan’s next prime minister is unlikely to have his predecessor’s experience, vision or political skills. That could be an issue in eight months, but it will be an unavoidable problem in a second Trump term.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior adviser (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”
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