US President Donald Trump attends a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron (not seen) at the end of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, August 26, 2019. [Philippe Wojazer/Reuters]
Conventional pundit wisdom has it that Donald Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy – unilateral, transactional, dismissive of history – has isolated the United States like never before. But while Trump’s continued assault on Western values like rule of law and press freedom has undeniably strained ties with traditional partners like Canada, Germany and France, “America First” has also netted the US a new class of allies.
In fact, roughly half of today’s G20 leaders actively prefer Trump to his predecessor Barack Obama. It is a sign that the world may be moving towards Trump – and the type of politics he represents – at least as fast as his unorthodox approach to American foreign policy is driving traditional US allies away.
In Brazil, President Jair Bolsonaro has been nicknamed the “Trump of the Tropics,” and his active disdain for political correctness rivals Trump’s own. Similarly, there are few world leaders that can match Trump’s migration rhetoric like Lega’s Matteo Salvini, who was, until recently, the political power propping up the Italian government. Both Salvini and Bolsonaro ran Trump-style campaigns that relied heavily on social media. Scott Morrison is set to become the first Australian leader to receive a state dinner from a US president since 2006, and has proclaimed that “Australia and the United States see the world through the same eyes” while visiting aboard the USS Ronald Reagan.
The affinity that Trump has for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is far from secret, and the Saudis have infinitely better relations with Trump and his team than they ever did with Obama. With India’s Narendra Modi, Trump enjoys a warm personal relationship, and no other world leader has proven as adept at using the divisive politics of “us vs them” to score political victories. Argentina’s Mauricio Macri has a personal relationship with Trump built on business and golf that predates both their presidencies, and Macri shares Trump’s freedom from ideologies.
So too does newly minted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whom Trump congratulated on Twitter for securing the British premiership with the ultimate Trump compliment, dubbing him “Britain Trump.” No more ink needs to be spilled on the genuine fondness Trump has for Russian President Vladimir Putin or that Putin has for Trump, though the bipartisan wariness for Putin in Washington has made it impossible for US-Russia relations to be resuscitated; it’s the same story with Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
This is a wide cast of political actors, each of whom have their own personal political calculations for preferring Trump. But take a step back and you see two distinct strains of Trump’s appeal to other world leaders – for those presiding over democracies, it’s Trump’s populism and ability to reach the kinds of voters that have long felt marginalized. For authoritarians, it’s Trump’s transactionalism and willingness to overlook issues like human rights abuses for the sake of political realities.
It’s also important to note those world leaders that have reason to be on good terms with Trump… but aren’t. China’s Xi Jinping expected that he would be able to work with the businessman Trump to cut the kinds of deals that would benefit his country while benefitting Trump at a more personal business and political level. Instead, Xi finds himself on the receiving end of a more aggressive US policy towards China, one of the few issues in Washington that commands genuine bipartisan support these days.
Similarly, Japan’s Shinzo Abe is surprised to find that after three years and the most overt Trump charm offensive launched by a leader of an advanced industrial democracy, Trump has failed to come around on Japan. Abe has failed to come around on Trump’s volatility as well.
Three years into the Trump presidency, it’s becoming clear that “America First” didn’t isolate the US, but it has changed the nature of its diplomatic relationships. Much of that has to do with Trump’s personally unconventional approach to foreign policy, but even more has to do with the structural drivers pushing the world into a new post-American world order.
Whoever succeeds Trump, whether that be in 2020 or 2024, will be facing a new set of American allies and foes; how well they navigate this new diplomatic landscape will go a long way to determining the success of their presidencies, as well as Trump’s presidential legacy.
* Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.