President Donald Trump’s first foreign trip: what lies ahead?

As US controversies simmer, Trump takes his unpredictability abroad to world leaders

US president Donald Trump:  Air Force One will take him and key staff on a nine-day foreign trip from Friday.  Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

US president Donald Trump: Air Force One will take him and key staff on a nine-day foreign trip from Friday. Photograph: Doug Mills/New York Times

 

When US president Donald Trump boards Air Force One for a nine-day foreign trip on Friday, he may be relieved to be leaving behind a domestic political situation that has threatened to overwhelm him.

While Trump’s absence from Washington may give Republicans a breather from the controversies that have consumed the White House, Trump is entering an equally perilous zone.

Diplomacy is not Donald Trump’s strong suit. At every turn the president has upended traditional American foreign policy, often taking his advisers by surprise, such as inviting the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, to the White House, or congratulating Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan on winning a recent referendum that was condemned by virtually all traditional US allies.

Trump said on Wednesday that the trip was about meeting “partners who help us, who don’t just take and take and take” – a comment that may alienate countries like Canada and Mexico which Trump did not choose to visit first.

His upcoming visit is laced with potential pitfalls as he negotiates some of the world’s most sensitive political problems. Anxious to paint Trump’s first foreign trip as leader as historically weighty, his advisers have scheduled an ambitious programme, with the president taking a whistlestop tour of the world’s most important religious sites.

Speech on Islam

In Saudi Arabia he is expected to deliver a landmark speech on Islam; in Israel he will visit the holy contested city of Jerusalem; and in Rome a visit to the Vatican is on the agenda. He will then attend a Nato summit in Brussels, before returning to Italy to attend a meeting of G7 nations in Sicily.

Even apart from the serious foreign policy issues, Trump’s first trip abroad as president holds other potential pitfalls.

The gruelling schedule and a series of successive bilateral meetings demand particular discipline and diplomacy from the president.

It is understood most of his key staff, including chief of staff Reince Priebus, advisers Steve Bannon and Jared Kushner, and national security adviser Gen HR McMaster, are travelling with the president. Adviser Kellyanne Conway is staying behind.

Trump’s trip will also involve numerous press conferences where, as Taoiseach Enda Kenny has found, he is likely to face questions about events at home from the travelling American press corps.

LIKELY RECEPTIONS AWAITING TRUMP

Saudi Arabia

Trump will need to assure this traditional American ally that America can be trusted in terms of counter-intelligence co-operation, given this week’s revelations that he shared classified information with the Russian foreign minister.

While Riyadh is likely to be supportive of a US administration that has distanced itself from Barack Obama’s tough approach towards the country’s human rights record, the Saudis will also be looking for signs that Trump is prepared to resist Iran. He has so far failed to follow through on his campaign promise to renegotiate the Iran nuclear deal.  

Israel

Although Trump stressed on Wednesday America’s “unbreakable alliance with the Jewish state”, this visit has been overshadowed by the revelation that Israel was the source of the intelligence information given by Trump to Russia last week. In another controversy, national security adviser Gen McMaster refused to say if the Western Wall in Jerusalem was part of Israel during a press appearance on Tuesday.

That followed reports in the Israeli press that a senior US official had told Israel that the Western Wall site was not on Israel’s territory, but a part of the West Bank. Trump is expected to visit the wall on Monday, but it is unclear if he will be accompanied by Israeli delegates. He is also due to meet the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas.

Italy

The Rome visit may also be fraught. Trump has said he will outline the contribution that Christian teachings have made to the world, but Pope Francis has been severely critical of western policies towards refugees and he publicly criticised the US for the use of the phrase “Mother of All Bombs” to describe a huge bomb dropped in eastern Afghanistan last month.

Brussels

The US president’s meeting with Nato allies in Brussels will be closely watched, given his previous description of the transatlantic alliance as “obsolete”, although he appeared to revise his opinion following a recent cordial meeting with Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the White House.

More pressing than Trump’s erratic comments on the merits or otherwise of Nato will be alarm about revelations that the US shared classified information with Russia and allegations of links between the Trump administration and Moscow, the alliance’s primary adversary.

With Nato members, particularly in eastern Europe, concerned about Russian activity on their borders and the occupation of eastern Ukraine, Nato partners will seek commitments from the US on its priorities.

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