How foreign countries are grappling with the mad world of Trump 50 days in

Julian Borger in Washington
Theresa May meets Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on 27 January 2017. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

When the Mexican foreign minister came to Washington, he went straight to the White House. The Department of State did not even know he was in town until its spokesman was asked about the visit by a journalist.

It was a typical story of foreign relations from the first 50 days of the Trump administration. The Mexican minister, Luis Videgaray, bypassed the state department and went straight to the centre of power and, as has become the norm, to a member of the Trump family, the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner.

Videgaray, who arrived in DC on Thursday, and Kushner knew each other in the business world – another thing that is emblematic of the Trump era, in which business networks have vied with national interests and the personal has become geopolitical.

The rest of the world has been quick to learn. When Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted his thanks for Trump’s “warm friendship and your clear-cut support for Israel” he added Ivanka and Donald Junior’s Twitter handles, emphasising his bond with the family. The prime minister is a longstanding family friend of the Kushners.

The priority for every ambassador in Washington and every visiting minister is to seek an audience with Kushner or Steve Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist. Some governments – accustomed to dealing with countries where the family tree of the ruling clan is a more accurate map of power than the official chain of command – have sought to curry favour by doing business with the Trump Organization.

After 50 days, conflicts of interest are no longer scandals, they are already business as usual. The Chinese embassy has played host to Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their children, at a time when the Kushner family business was pursuing property dealings with a major Chinese corporation.

This week, China granted 38 new trademarks to the Trump Organization, paving the way in theory for the family business to enter – or stop others from entering – a wide array of businesses, from insurance to hotels, bodyguards, massage parlours and escort services.

Intellectual property experts were struck by how smoothly the whole process went through the Chinese bureaucracy, and pointed to likely intervention from on high in the Communist party hierarchy. Beijing has bigger fish to fry with the Trump administration. It won an important battle on 9 February when Trump spoke to Xi Jinping and appeared to drop his threat to abandon Washington’s One China policy, which would have meant recognition of Taiwan, a red line for Beijing.

For Russia, the personal approach has backfired badly, as every contact with the Trump camp and any evidence of financial entanglement has become a threat to the president’s legitimacy and his support among congressional Republicans. Trump himself has been forced – for now – to backpedal from earlier suggestions he would lift sanctions, go soft on Moscow’s military intervention in Ukraine and find common cause with Russia in Syria. If, however, Russia’s goal was to destabilise the US political system through its contacts with Trump’s team, it may have been more successful.

The rest of the world has also discovered that many Trump policies that seemed emotive touchstones of his insurgent campaign have been shelved after meeting strong resistance. Moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and dismantling the nuclear deal with Iran no longer seem quite so urgent.

An awareness that personal relationships hold more gravity than policy positions has only made it more critical to get access.

For Theresa May, winning the race to be the first foreign leader to be greeted in the Trump White House was a victory, enhanced by the president’s encouraging (though meaningless in practice) words on future trade relations. The British prime minister also used her time to try to shape the putty of Trump foreign policy, fending off planned sanctions relief for Moscow and getting the president to publicly acknowledge support for Nato.

May has also paid a price, muting long-held UK positions on settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories and abandoning common European positions on the Middle East.

“This has been a pretty miserable period for British diplomacy,” Richard Gowan, a foreign policy analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations said. “The UK has consistently appeared excessively keen to curry favor with the US. There is obviously a solid argument for sustaining ties with Washington, but London has looked neither morally nor politically serious in recent months.”

Angela Merkel, who will meet Trump for the first time on Tuesday, has taken a different approach, making herself a bastion of the embattled western liberal order, in the face of cynicism about that ideal from both Moscow and Washington.

“The Germans view the US now with equal portions of puzzlement and concern,” said Jeffrey Rathke, a senior fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies. He listed Trump’s personal attacks on Merkel for her handling of the refugee crisis and the clear affinity of Bannon and other aides for the European far right.

“There is lingering doubt over how the US sees European security and whether it sees US and European security as intrinsically linked and interdependent,” Rathke said.

Foreign leaders have made a point of stressing the messages they wanted to hear – most importantly support for the EU and Nato voiced by Vice-President Mike Pence and the defence secretary, James Mattis – while trying to blot contrary signals coming from the White House. The dominant response, however, given the institution and policy turmoil in Washington, has been one of confusion.

“Trump makes it most difficult for the most pro-American diplomats, who have identified themselves with the US commitment to western democracy,” said EJ Dionne, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “So for them there is a dilemma. They don’t want their countries to pull back from engagement with the US, but they are troubled, or horrified, at what they have here.”

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