British Prime Minister Theresa May will be the first foreign leader to visit President Donald Trump, and she is bringing him an early victory in foreign economic policy: the outlines of a one-on-one trade deal.
That is the kind he likes, superior to the multilateral accords that he insists have caused “carnage” in America’s job market. Trump proudly announced this week that the United States was pulling out of the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership, and vowed to negotiate with each of the countries separately.
His abrupt shift from President Barack Obama’s embrace of globalism does not simply stem from Trump’s nature as a disrupter, a man who rejects the way things have been done. It is not just that he thrives on breaking with tradition.
In fact, his business experience has taught him that when there is just one party on the other side of the table — and especially a slightly desperate and less wealthy one — then the bigger player will achieve some terrific terms: better than facing the entire European Union, or granting an easy path to imports from an Asian group that includes Vietnam, Japan, Malaysia and other exporters.
As for his British guest tomorrow, Trump will surely savor the fact that May has her job only because — as he would see it — her nation’s voters took his advice. They chose to quit the European Union, and the Brexit result was as surprising as Trump’s own victory nearly five months later. Former Prime Minister David Cameron was humiliated, and in July he gave way to May.
European diplomats in Washington wonder whether Trump will lend encouragement to self-labeled populists and anti-immigration parties now campaigning in Germany, France and the Netherlands for elections this year.
Because he praised the British for exiting the European Union, the diplomats are concerned that Trump would be happy to see NATO weakened. The fate of the West’s military alliance — clinging to its original purpose of blocking Russia — is a top cause for worry among the allies’ diplomats in Washington who are tasked with figuring out what America’s new president really wants. Perhaps, they wonder, he isn’t bothered by Russian expansionism?
When they heard him declare in his inauguration speech that every decision will be guided by “America first,” they wondered whether he cares about traditional foreign friends.
Diplomats and spies are reporting to their governments, but they have to confess that nothing they write is certain. One year ago, almost all of them cabled their capitals with the assessment that Donald Trump — real estate developer, pugnacious bloviator and reality TV star — could not possibly be elected the most powerful leader on Earth.
Foreign officials no longer ridicule him. Now he is at the helm of the U.S. military and has the power to embrace new allies, walk away from old ones, approve or reject negotiations, and affect foreign governments and citizens in ways that Americans rarely think about.
May will smooth the way for a bilateral trade deal if she makes a case for how Britain can help grow the U.S. economy. It also wouldn’t hurt her cause if she takes a few moments to shower the president with praise.
The next three foreign leaders to try their hand at the Trump guessing game will be Mexico’s president, coming Tuesday, and the prime ministers of Canada and Israel in the weeks to follow. They all should figure out how to persuade their host that they can help him “make America great again” — because that is a sure way to get his amiable attention.
Dan Raviv, an author and former correspondent for CBS News, is the Washington correspondent of i24 News.