Trump's brash diplomacy faces summit tests

AFP , Friday 8 Jun 2018

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a joint news conference with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., June 7, 2018 (Photo: Reuters)

President Donald Trump embarks Friday on four days of summitry that could tip the world toward trade war or nuclear peace, and perhaps show whether he is in fact a dealmaker extraordinaire or one-man wrecking ball.

The US president kicks off with a two-day sojourn at Chateau in the rolling Quebec countryside, which would be nice were fellow G7 leaders not furious over his rash of protectionist trade sanctions.

Once that is out of the way, he jets on to Singapore for a landmark summit with Kim Jong Un to discuss the equally difficult issue of North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The topics may be very different but the stakes are equally high -- on one hand the prospect of tit-for-tat sanctions that could hobble the global economy, on the other a nuclear standoff with the bellicose North Korean regime.

And both meetings were framed almost entirely by Trumpian bluster -- a bareknuckle attitude toward confronting even the closest of allies, and a threat that if North Korea does not abandon its nukes, Pyongyang will be bombed out of existence.

In his first year and a half in office, Trump has approached diplomacy as a blood sport, warning interlocutors, whether friend or foe, to capitulate or suffer the consequences.

The 71-year-old businessman has repeatedly demanded "big" -- declaring stark ultimatums and broad-stroke threats in the way most politicos dole out platitudes.

As Trump prepared to depart Washington his aides touted that as a feature, not a bug, hailing what they called "500 days of winning on the world stage."

"President Trump has ended decades of talk and restored the credibility of America's word on the international stage," the White House said.

Yet, despite the tough talk Trump has, more often than not, secured just enough concessions to claim victory at home, while perhaps changing the world less than the White House spin machine would suggest.

He announced withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord, but has remained a signatory, respecting the years long process of exiting.

He "moved" the US embassy to Jerusalem, but left most of the staff in Tel Aviv, leading critics to argue he effectively changed a sign above the consulate door.

The White House has often taken several victory laps, painting Trump as the lion of American interests, while quietly dialling back and even offering significant concessions.

Most recently, Chinese company ZTE saw sanctions lifted for a much-touted billion dollar fine, but was allowed to continue working in the United States.

That concerned US intelligence agencies and even some Republicans.

Senator Marco Rubio complained that ZTE, and another company, Huawei, "have direct links to the Chinese government and Communist Party," as he introduced legislation to reverse the Trump approved deal.

"Their products and services are used for espionage and intellectual property theft, and they have been putting the American people and economy at risk without consequence for far too long."

It was precisely this transactional approach that worried senior White House officials in the fading days of the Obama administration.

Trump, they feared, would be happy to take a tactical victory for himself, even if it was a strategic loss for the country.

But Trump's mercurial character, and his me-first, non-idealistic approach, has opened doors as well as closed them.

Even Obama, who was willing to travel to Cuba and deal with Iran, could not find a way of sitting down with North Korea.

Critics argue that is because Trump has demanded -- and received -- fewer concessions from North Korea than any other administration would.

If the mood is better in tropical South East Asia than on the banks of the St Lawrence, it may be because Kim has been more willing to play Trump's game.

Pyongyang has got the summit of equals they always wanted, without any strategic, permanent or irreversible concessions.

It released three American prisoners, giving Trump the victory needed to make the summit palatable. His supporters even suggested Trump get a Nobel Peace Prize.

But even the president's critics would acknowledge sitting down with Kim is preferable to talk of "fire and fury."

In contrast, Trump has rushed headlong into a fight with Western leaders who had the temerity to threaten counter sanctions and isolation.

It may be too early to tell if Trump's brand of confrontational statecraft works, wringing concessions out of friend and foe.

But the summits in Quebec and Singapore show that after fewer than two years in office, Trump's brand of smashmouth wheeler-dealer diplomacy is defining the global agenda -- for better or worse.

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