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

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


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.


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.  


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.


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.


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.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection


Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.