For national security adviser H.R. McMaster, President Trump’s first overseas trip is about proclaiming the return of America’s global leadership.
The president’s nine-day, five-country trip to the Middle East and Europe, which begins Friday, will “reverse a trend of America’s disengagement from the world and from the world’s biggest problems,” Lt. Gen. McMaster said recently.
The challenge Mr. Trump faces, however, is that the leaders he will meet with and the publics he’ll address in the two regions he’ll visit are looking for different things from America and will have very different aspirations for US leadership.
On part one, which begins Saturday in Saudi Arabia, security will be front and center, and Middle Eastern leaders from Saudi Arabia and the small Gulf states to Israel will be looking for security assurances and pledges of American hard power.
For the second half, in Europe, security (and counterterrorism) issues will also be on the agenda – but hovering in the background will be questions about common values and to what degree Trump’s America will continue to champion those values around the world, including democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.
“This will be President Trump’s inaugural stride across the global stage, so the leaders and the publics in the regions he’ll visit are going to try to get a read on what he stands for and what he doesn’t stand for,” says Charles Kupchan, who was a Europe specialist on President Obama’s National Security Council.
“In the Gulf monarchies in particular there will be relief that they are welcoming a president who appears to be exclusively focused on strategic cooperation and not on issues like human rights and how countries run their domestic affairs,” says Dr. Kupchan, now at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington.
But in Europe, even if the conversations are focused on issues like NATO burden-sharing, North Korea, and Ukraine, he adds, “behind those granular issues du jour will be the overarching question, ‘If the US no longer assumes the role of zealously promoting democracy and human rights, who will?’”
Part one likely the easiest
It would be a complicated dichotomy for any president to maneuver through, experts say, let alone one with still very little diplomatic experience. But given Trump’s evident comfort with more authoritarian leaders, the little emphasis he has placed so far on America’s traditional role as promoter of Western values, and his recourse to displays of American military might, some wonder if he might fare better on part one of the trip than on part two.
“This would be a tremendously complex trip for any president, but I think there are good reasons to assume President Trump will be more comfortable and will be better received on the first part of it in the Middle East,” says Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security in Washington.
“In the Gulf, President Trump is tremendously popular – they are comfortable with family-run businesses, that’s how they run their countries,” he says. “They are used to being lectured by the US, and they like that Trump doesn’t seem to care – that values and human rights are just not vital to his approach to the world,” says Mr. Goldenberg, who just returned from the Gulf.
The Sunni Arab leaders Trump will meet with, as well as Israel where Trump will stop after Saudi Arabia, are more interested in the new president’s more aggressive turn on Iran after Mr. Obama’s diplomatic overtures to Tehran. Indeed the region’s leaders are broadly more comfortable with the US focusing on strategic challenges and downplaying Western conceptions of issues like human rights and democratization, others say.
“Frankly, the Saudi reaction toward the end of the Obama administration was they were dealing with a US ally that they felt focused far more on trying to change Saudi Arabia internally than on providing credible guarantees of its security,” says Anthony Cordesman, a US and Middle East security analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Reestablishing confidence is going to be a security goal,” he adds, though it may “come at the potential expense of pressure on human rights.”
Statement on Islam
Israel, too, is relieved by Trump’s harder line on regional security, Dr. Cordesman says – though there may be some qualms about Trump’s interest in pressing aggressively for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
“I think what Israel wants to see [is] that there is this commitment to preserving its edge in security, that they do have a strong ally that will not push them constantly on the peace process, that we will stay in the Gulf, and we will keep our forces in a posture where they will deter Iran,” he says.
It’s not as though Trump will steer clear of values statements while in the Middle East. Indeed, he will deliver a speech on Islam in Saudi Arabia, as part of what the White House says is an effort to correct perceptions of the president’s views on one of the world’s great religions.
Yet as Trump turns from the Middle East to Europe, he will find that the same qualities that make him popular in the trip’s first leg are what may give him trouble in the second.
“Trump is more like leaders [in the Middle East], he sees the world very much in black and white – he admires strong leaders, he focuses on individuals over institutions, he is less focused on ‘values’ like democracy and human rights,” says Goldenberg. “But those are precisely the things that make him unpopular with Europeans.”
As Trump attends a NATO meeting in Brussels and takes in a Group of Seven summit in Sicily, Europe’s dismay over signs of America’s retreat from championing traditional Western values may remain much more in the background than Gulf leaders’ enthusiasm for a strategically rebounding US.
Eyes on Vatican City
But Kupchan says there are two European arenas in which Trump’s perceived retreat from those values are likely to be “front and center” – the president’s stop in Vatican City to meet with Pope Francis, and in any discussions with European leaders on Turkey’s slide to authoritarian rule.
“I’d be watching for any public display by the pope of his differences with President Trump on several key issues that touch on the values question,” says Kupchan, who cites climate change, refugees and immigration, and “the responsibilities of wealthier nations towards the most vulnerable,” as the three topics most likely to reveal stark differences between the two leaders.
“This is a pope who has dedicated his life to those most in need, whereas Trump has focused on cutting budgets, cutting assistance, and generally taking a very different line on those three issues than the pope.”
Yet while the regions Trump will visit may have different key issues on their agendas – and different hopes for how the president inserts questions of values into his first global tour – what they will have in common will be one basic question: Will America, under Trump, still lead?
On that basic question, Kupchan says, the hope-for answers are probably not that different.
The Europeans, he says, “will be watching for indications as to whether Trump is an Atlanticist or not. Does he invest in the relationship with the Atlantic partners in the same way that every president has done since Pearl Harbor?” he says. “He came into office suggesting not. He has since said and done things suggesting maybe,” he adds. “But I think everyone will be watching for that.”