Skip to main content
Republican U.S. presidential nominee Donald Trump gives two thumbs up as he arrives to speak during the final session at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, U.S. July 21, 2016. REUTERS/Brian Snyder TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTSJ4FT
Up Front

R-E-S-P-E-C-T: The question of Trump and U.S. foreign policy

We know Donald Trump the (flamboyant) businessman and (uninhibited) reality show host. We know Donald Trump the (disruptive) populist politician. We are about to discover Donald Trump as the leader of the world’s most powerful (and respected?) nation.

Trump has raised questions in the minds of the leaders of most of America’s historic allied and friendly nations. They are wondering in particular about his stance on immigration, including the wall on the Mexican border, and his policy toward NATO and the defense of Europe. It may turn out that the key to U.S. relations with its allies and friends in the Trump era will be R-E-S-P-E-C-T, of the kind Aretha Franklin asked for.


Journalist David Ignatius of the Washington Post has reminded us that Machiavelli advised leaders who aim to be successful that it is better to be feared than to be loved. Being feared or being loved are extremes that may be less relevant today. Being respected could be more important.

Let’s set aside the matter of being respected by American citizens and ponder instead the challenge for Trump of gaining the respect of foreign leaders.

A good starting point is to ask if it makes a difference. Trump may believe instinctively that it’s up to the foreign leaders to gain his respect. In a world where Americans represent less than 5 percent of global population and where perceptions of American decline are almost universal, it is hard to believe this attitude will succeed.

So let’s consider in turn President-elect Trump’s bilateral as well as multilateral relations with the rest of the world, starting now and into 2017.

But keep in mind that President Barack Obama is flying to Berlin to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week and will be winding up his final overseas visit as president by attending the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Lima, Peru. The spin Obama puts on the president-elect in these meetings could somewhat ease the anxiety felt by many world leaders. The work of earning respect will be Trump’s alone and will be a “huge” challenge.

Imagine Trump’s first meetings with just three leaders:  Chancellor Merkel, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. It seems far-fetched that Merkel will feel obliged to embrace Trump’s view of the role of Europe in the world.  It seems equally far-fetched that May will go beyond noting the U.K.’s “special relationship” with the U.S. in the past. The case of Trudeau may be the hardest for the new president-elect, because it looks as though the more radical Trump policies are, the more Canada benefits. This is not a formula for mutual respect.

Imagine Trump’s first participation or representation in four multilateral fora: the G-7 summit in Taormina, Sicily from May 26-27; the G-20 summit in July, the United Nation’s General Assembly, and the East Asia Summit.

Given the G-7 summit will focus on Africa and migration and is scheduled just a few months after inauguration, Trump may delegate someone to attend. He likely wants to focus in his first 100 days on economic and other issues; also, he is mainly interested in keeping refugees out. Unless Putin plans to attend the G-7 and asks Trump to meet him there, it is unlikely the U.S. president-elect will make Sicily his first foreign visit.

The next G-20 summit in Hamburg, Germany from July 7-8 could be the first major multilateral meeting he attends, and it is hard to believe that he would skip it or send an alternate. The first 100 days of his administration will be behind him and the drift of his foreign policy should be clear.

The U.S. president traditionally addresses the U.N. General Assembly when it meets every September in New York City. Is it conceivable that Trump will miss this opportunity to explain how he wants to remake the U.N. system? Is it conceivable that his audience will react with equanimity if he reiterates his views from March 2016 when he spoke of “the utter weakness and incompetence of the United Nations,” and went on to say, “The United Nations is not a friend of democracy, it’s not a friend to freedom. It’s not a friend even to the United States of America, where as all know, it has its home”?

Traditionally, meetings of the 18 nations represented at the East Asia Summit are held in November. The date for next year’s meeting has not been fixed, but the host country will be the Philippines. Trump’s participation in this meeting will be complicated by the tradition of convening the 21-nation APEC summit back to back with the East Asia Summit, in large part to avoid requiring the U.S. president from making two separate trips to Asia. Here, it is possible that Trump will decide to skip the East Asia Summit in the Philippines or the APEC meeting that will be hosted by Vietnam. At both he is likely to be regarded with skepticism at best. If he sends an alternate to one of them, it would almost certainly lead to a loss of U.S. influence in Asia.

Imagine then that Trump decides that he wants to gain the respect of the leaders he will engage with at these meetings. To succeed, he will have to set aside a number of his key campaign promises and, more problematically, overcome his instinct to regard each meeting as just another deal to be done.

Sometimes gaining a little R-E-S-P-E-C-T is complicated, but doing so on the multilateral stage in Asia as well as with individual leaders in Europe, Canada, and elsewhere could help to “make America great again.”


Get daily updates from Brookings