Trump’s affection for authoritarian leaders, amply demonstrated previously, explains this behavior in part but not in full. It’s not just that Trump is acquiescent with vicious or adversarial leaders. A man who rose to the presidency promising to get tough with other countries has shown himself to be strongly influenced by personal relationships. When push comes to shove, Trump’s personal reaction to someone often ends up being more important than his past rhetoric, the past relationships between countries, or the geopolitical stakes. It’s not an accident that claiming great relationships with foreign leaders is his go-to boast in the global sphere.
Presented with a smiling face, and even better an elaborate greeting, Trump tends to get all warm and fuzzy inside. “It was a red carpet like nobody, I think, has probably ever seen,” he said of the ASEAN summit. “Rodrigo, thank you very much for the way you treated all of us,” he told Duterte.
The way Trump privileges personal relationships comes through in the way he speaks about international alliances. Take, for example, his remarks with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Modi struck up an (unlikely) friendship with President Obama. In public remarks, Obama repeatedly mentioned their friendship, but always emphasized shared American-Indian connections. Appearing with Trump this weekend, Modi spoke the language of international diplomacy: “The relations between India and the United States are growing very rapidly with a great deal of speed. … And I also feel that and that these relations between India and the U.S., they are not just for our mutual interests, but they go much beyond that.”
Trump, however, focused almost entirely on the personal as he stood next to Modi. There was no mention of shared policy goals; it was all personal ties. “We’ve had him at the White House, and he’s become a friend of ours and a great gentleman doing a fantastic job in bringing around lots of factions in India—bringing them all together,” Trump said. “That’s what I hear, and that’s good news. And it really is. It’s a lot of good reports coming out of India. So I want to congratulate you.”
One result of this focus is that Trump often ends up going easy on foreign leaders, despite promising to be tough with them during his campaign and since. This has been clear in his approach to China, which he used as a central villain during the campaign. After meeting with President Xi Jinping, however, Trump suddenly sounded very different: He backed down on branding the country a currency manipulator, and reversed his insistence that China could solve the North Korea crisis if only it wanted to.
Xi’s method of persuasion—offering a friendly face—has proven highly effective for other foreign leaders, who have gradually realized that Trump’s desire to get along makes him an easy mark. Another frequent target of Trump’s ire is Mexico, but as I wrote in August, the leaked transcript of a phone call with Enrique Peña Nieto showed how the Mexican leader was able to back Trump down using smooth and conciliatory language.