It’s disappointing but not surprising that in the fifth month of the Trump administration, Germany, Mexico and South Korea are among the big losers in U.S. foreign relations. They may be among America’s closest allies, but President Donald Trump made it clear enough during his campaign that he considers them conniving freeloaders who snicker at the United States behind its back.
What’s surprising is the big winners so far — not Russia, nor Israel — but two countries Trump has spent decades disparaging: China and Saudi Arabia. So far, Asia’s rising superpower and the Middle East’s most reactionary autocracy have gotten everything they’ve wanted from the White House, including unconditional public support from the president.
China, which Trump long assailed as a trade cheater and said would be sanctioned on his first day in office, has seen no such censure. Instead, Trump has lauded President Xi Jinping as someone with whom he has made “tremendous progress” in forging a cooperative relationship. Not only has Trump publicly promised not to label Xi’s government a currency manipulator, but he has mostly restrained the Pentagon from challenging Beijing’s aggressive campaign to consolidate control over the South China Sea.
Saudi Arabia has been a Trump target since 1987, when he took out full-page newspaper ads accusing it of “taking advantage of the United States” and demanding that it “pay for the protection” Washington provides. Yet since visiting the kingdom last month, the new president has swung so fully behind its ruling family that it felt empowered to launch a diplomatic and military boycott against neighboring Qatar, home of the largest U.S. military base in the Middle East.
Arguably, these flip-flops had some rational basis. Trump says the tack toward Beijing is meant to gain its help in stopping North Korea’s accumulation of nuclear weapons. The alignment with Saudi Arabia can be cast as part of a larger campaign to turn back Iranian aggression in the Middle East — and, perhaps, help Israel broker peace with the Palestinians.
Yet it’s possible to seek Beijing’s help on North Korea, or Saudi Arabia’s on Iran, without uncritically embracing their regimes or offering them carte blanche to pursue agendas that threaten vital U.S. strategic interests. Previous U.S. presidents have tried to strike such a balance. What’s distinctive about Trump is his black-and-white approach to foreign governments: Either he loves them, or he does not.
Or maybe, the distinction is whether the president perceives that he is held in high enough regard by the regime in question. Those that seem critical, or condition their affection, such as Mexico and Germany, are out; those prepared to hang portraits of him in their capitals and celebrate his arrival with sword dances, such as Saudi Arabia, are in.
Xi’s China has not been quite so effusive. But Xi was willing to pay court to Trump at his resort in Mar-a-Lago. His government has granted Trump dozens of valuable trademarks since his inauguration, along with a bunch given to Ivanka Trump’s fashion business on the day of the summit.
China and Saudi Arabia focus their diplomacy on the Trump family. They both used as their prime conduit Jared Kushner, the presidential son-in-law whose evident naivete about foreign affairs is as great as his ambitions. As my colleague Josh Rogin has reported, Henry Kissinger opened a back channel between Kushner and Beijing before the Mar-a-Lago summit — one from which the U.S. government’s China hands were excluded.
A similar channel connects Kushner with Saudi Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who has emerged as the pre-eminent figure in a regime headed by his aged father. Before Trump’s visit to Riyadh, the two sketched out ambitious — and as yet unrealized — plans for an “Arab NATO” that, bolstered with tens of billions in U.S. weapons sales, would push back against Iran.
The clincher in these sweetheart deals has been the seduction by Xi and Salman of the president himself — which, by Trump’s own account, has been all too easy. According to the president, after just a 10-minute lecture from Xi about North Korea, he said “I realized it’s not so easy” for China to act. When he spoke about stopping terrorism in Riyadh, Trump tweeted last week that the Saudis “pointed to Qatar” — with which they have been feuding over other issues. The president swallowed their line.
No doubt the Chinese and Saudis are shrewd enough to know their current luck may not last. When China fails to rein in North Korea, or the Saudis fail to deliver the Palestinians for a Mideast peace deal, Trump may suddenly turn on them. For now, though, they have illuminated an embarrassing and somewhat scary truth about this president: When it comes to foreign affairs, he is heedless of history, susceptible to blandishments and supremely gullible.