The American president tells the man behind a brutal anti-drug campaign that he is doing a “great job.”
In April, while recruiting allies against North Korea, Donald Trump reportedly applauded a vicious war against drugs that has resulted in thousands of extrajudicial killings in the Philippines. “I just wanted to congratulate you because I am hearing of the unbelievable job on the drug problem,” Trump told Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, according to a transcript of the conversation made by the Philippine government and leaked to several news outlets this week. “Many countries have the problem, we have a problem, but what a great job you are doing and I just wanted to call and tell you that.” Later in the conversation, Trump invited Duterte, who has bragged about personally executing criminals, to the White House.
It’s yet another reminder not just of Trump’s soft spot for strongmen, but also the degree to which he has broken with his predecessors in prioritizing value-neutral transactions—in this case, apparently: I’ll give you a green light on the drug war in exchange for your support on North Korea—over the promotion of democracy and human rights.
With Trump vowing to put “America first,” the question is who comes second, third, and 193rd. The U.S. president has thrown allies and adversaries into a state of flux unseen in decades. Consider one illustrative example from Trump’s first trip overseas: After meeting with the American president in Brussels, European Union President Donald Tusk acknowledged that the two men don’t “have a common position, a common opinion on Russia.” We now live in a world where long-standing diplomatic relationships can fray or flourish at the speed of a tweet or a leak from inside the Oval Office. Countries such as Australia and China appear to have recently risen in Trump’s esteem, while others, including Canada and Syria, have fallen.
Below, in alphabetical order, is a breakdown of where key countries seem to stand with Trump at the moment. I repeat: at the moment. As things change and Trump takes his foreign policy in new directions, I’ll update the status of countries on the list and add new ones.
Relations with one of America’s most loyal allies hit a snag amid reports of a hostile call between Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull over an Obama-era agreement for the United States to resettle refugees from detention centers off the Australian coast. But the alliance has since steadied, with Vice President Mike Pence promising to honor the refugee deal during a visit to Sydney. Still, Australia is a test case—perhaps the test case—for how international alliances could shift during the Trump era. If Australian leaders come to view the U.S. as unreliable, they may invest more in the relationship with their largest trading partner, China.
Trump claims to get along well with “Justin,” the Canadian prime minister who has been described as “the anti-Trump.” Yet Trump has recently been keeping Trudeau’s country at arm’s length—imposing new tariffs on Canadian lumber, moving ahead with the renegotiation of the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, and becoming only the second American president since Ronald Reagan to skip Canada during his first overseas trip. “Everyone thinks of Canada being wonderful and civil,” Trump has observed, but on trade, Canadian leaders have “outsmarted our politicians for many years.” The Canadian government has in turn launched a PR blitz to persuade the Trump administration that the smart approach would actually be to preserve free trade between the two countries.
China’s rise as a superpower has made it a rival of the United States for years now. Trump initially intensified the rivalry by threatening to impose tariffs on Chinese goods and breaking protocol by calling the leader of Taiwan, which the Chinese government considers part of China. But the rapid progression of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program—perhaps the defining foreign-policy challenge of Trump’s presidency—has changed all that, at least for the moment. Trump argues that China, as North Korea’s most vital economic and diplomatic ally, is the only country that can pressure the North Koreans to abandon their nuclear ambitions. To enlist the Chinese government in that effort, Trump has sworn off surprise phone calls with Taiwan, refrained from labeling China a “currency manipulator,” and praised Chinese President Xi Jinping as a “good man” with whom he has “great chemistry.” His administration has even struck several modest trade deals with China. If North Korea’s provocations escalate, however, Trump’s “China, China, China”-bashing could return.
America’s oldest alliance remains intact, but it hasn’t been this wobbly since the French government opposed George W. Bush’s war in Iraq. Trump is considering pulling out of a global agreement to address climate change that was negotiated in Paris, and he’s argued that France is no longer recognizable because terrorism is out of control there (this, at least, is what his friend Jim tells him). During the French presidential election, Emmanuel Macron, who campaigned on a platform of centrist cosmopolitanism, invited American climate scientists to escape the Trump era by moving to France; Trump, for his part, expressed support for Macron’s opponent, the far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen, and stayed silent on suspected Russian cyberattacks against Macron. Now Macron is president. Awkward.
Trump has cited German Chancellor Angela Merkel—one of Barack Obama’s closest allies—as a leader he admires, but he’s also criticized her for admitting too many refugees, dismissed the European Union as a “vehicle” for German power, and chastised Germany for not contributing more money to NATO. Merkel, for her part, has hinted that European countries can no longer count on support from a Trump-led United States. She has also emerged as the leading defender of the liberal international system that the United States helped design after World War II; after Trump won the U.S. election, Merkel pledged cooperation based on “common values—democracy, freedom, as well as respect for the rule of law and the dignity of each and every person, regardless of their origin, skin color, creed, gender, sexual orientation, or political views.” The implication was that the American president needed a firm reminder to uphold these values.
Obama ended a decades-old U.S. policy of isolating Iran in a bid to restrict the country’s nuclear program. Trump has dramatically reversed course. While he’s given no indication that he’ll scrap the nuclear deal, he has imposed sanctions on Iran for testing ballistic missiles and included Iran in his ban on travel to the United States from several Muslim-majority countries. There is wide consensus in the Trump administration—from the defense secretary to the chief political strategist to the president himself—that the Iranian government is an enormous threat, the Shia version of the “radical Islam” practiced by the Sunni terrorists of ISIS. And the administration has even started sparring with Iran in Syria, where it bombed a militia backed by Tehran. In a speech in Saudi Arabia, Trump made official his alliance with Israel and Sunni Arab states against Iran, which he accused of fueling “the fires of sectarian conflict and terror” in the Middle East.
Trump came into office pledging to restore close ties with Israel following Obama’s famously troubled relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Trump has consistently embraced Netanyahu’s dark view of Iran, but he’s recently disappointed right-wing Israeli leaders by backing off his permissive attitude toward Israeli settlements and plan to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem—all in the vague pursuit of brokering a peace deal between the Israelis and Palestinians. The low point came with reports that Trump disclosed extremely sensitive Israeli intelligence about an ISIS plot during a meeting with Russian officials. During a visit to Israel, Trump tried to mend relations by insisting that he never mentioned the word “Israel” to the Russians. Netanyahu, who was standing nearby, struggled to smile.
During the presidential campaign, Trump accused Japan of taking advantage of the United States on trade and not paying enough for the U.S. military protection that it has enjoyed since entering into a defense treaty with America after World War II—prompting Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, to hurriedly make his way to Trump Tower after the U.S. election in search of reassurance. The months since have brought that reassurance, perhaps because Japan and America share an enemy in North Korea. During a stop in Tokyo, Trump’s defense secretary, James Mattis, affirmed the U.S. government’s “100-percent” commitment to the military alliance.
LIBYA, SOMALIA, SUDAN, AND YEMEN
Trump’s travel ban remains tied up in the courts. But in seeking to temporarily prohibit citizens of these countries plus Iran and Syria from entering the United States, the president is in effect suggesting that Iranians, Libyans, Somalis, Sudanese, Syrians, and Yemenis are all possible enemies of the state. Trump claims the measure is designed to block “potential terrorists and others that do not have our best interests at heart.”
Since the very first day of his presidential campaign, Trump has characterized Mexico as “not our friend”—a crafty country that’s stealing American jobs, clobbering the United States on trade, and sending drugs and illegal immigrants across the U.S. border. He’s committed to renegotiating NAFTA—the centerpiece of the U.S.-Mexico alliance—and made building a wall between the two friendly neighbors a prominent part of his policy agenda. His insistence that Mexico will somehow, someday “pay” for a border wall it doesn’t want led Mexico’s president to abruptly cancel a planned visit to the United States. In Mexico, a leading presidential candidate in the 2018 election is positioning himself in opposition to Trump. The good news: The Trump administration claims the president was only kidding when he said he might send U.S. troops into Mexico to stop drug trafficking and illegal immigration.
Obama reportedly advised his successor to make the advance of North Korea’s nuclear-weapons program his top national-security priority, and Trump appears to have taken the suggestion seriously. Amid a flurry of North Korean missile tests at the start of his presidency, Trump vowed to prevent North Korea from developing the capability to place a nuclear warhead on a long-range missile that can reach the United States—a milestone that experts believe North Korea could reach within Trump’s first term. According to the administration, stopping that from happening could involve everything from using military force, to pressuring China to cut off economic relations with North Korea, to Trump negotiating directly with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. What the administration hopes it won’t involve: another botched deployment of a U.S. aircraft carrier to the Korean peninsula.
Where to begin?? Since the Cold War, every American president has initially tried to befriend Russia, only for the relationship to sour. Yet Trump’s longing for friendship is far more profound than that of his predecessors, for reasons that remain unclear. He says he admires Vladimir Putin as a “strong” leader and wants to partner with Russia to defeat ISIS. But the various investigations into the Russian government’s interference in the U.S. presidential election and possible collusion with members of the Trump campaign—and Trump’s numerous interventions in those investigations—have cast a pall over any U.S. efforts to improve relations with Moscow (while Trump has met with a parade of world leaders, he has avoided making firm plans with Putin). Further complicating the Trump-Putin bromance: The Trump administration has twice bombed the forces of Russia’s ally, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. If Trump believed—as he told Russian officials in a chummy Oval Office meeting—that firing FBI Director James Comey would relieve the “great pressure” that the Russia Saga had placed on him, the president was mistaken.
As a candidate, Trump threatened to halt U.S. oil purchases from Saudi Arabia unless the Kingdom contributed more to the military campaign against ISIS. But in striking an $110-billion arms deal with the Saudis and choosing Saudi Arabia as his first stop in his first overseas trip, Trump sent a clear message that the days of Obama distancing the United States from Saudi Arabia are over. The Trump administration views Iran as the enemy—and the enemy of that enemy is … Saudi Arabia.
Trump long argued that while Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is a “bad guy,” the United States had to focus exclusively on ISIS in Syria. Instead, the Trump administration has proven surprisingly hostile to the Assad government, striking it for using chemical weapons against its own people, attacking its forces for getting too close to a U.S. military base, and sanctioning Syrian officials for other atrocities against civilians. The administration’s larger goal appears to be to forcefully protect U.S. interests as countries vie for influence in Syria and the wider region.
As he has with other authoritarian leaders, Trump has paid no heed to human-rights issues in his dealings with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, a critical ally in the fight against ISIS. When Erdogan successfully carried out a constitutional referendum to greatly increase his powers, Trump called to congratulate him without reservations. When Erdogan visited Trump at the White House, the American president didn’t mention the moves by his Turkish counterpart to purge political opponents and wipe out freedom of the press. This silence was the context in which, during that same visit to Washington, the Turkish president’s guards beat up peaceful protesters as Erdogan watched from his car. It was a test not only of the Trump administration’s commitment to human rights, but also to protecting the fundamental rights of Americans on American soil—and it was met with mild criticism from the State Department and more silence from Trump. Tensions between the two countries have also mounted over Trump’s decision, as part of an effort to defeat ISIS in Syria, to arm a Syrian Kurdish militia that Turkey considers part of a terrorist insurgency against the Turkish state.
The “Special Relationship” is still special. British Prime Minister Theresa May was the first foreign leader to visit the new American president in Washington, and Trump has applauded Britain for leaving the European Union. He views the anti-EU movement there as a populist campaign to restore national sovereignty, like his in the United States. There are rifts below the surface, however. The Trump administration’s allegation that British spies wiretapped Trump Tower and leaks of intelligence regarding a terrorist attack in Manchester have left many British officials less than enamored with the man who likes to call himself “Mr. Brexit.”