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Trump's Bluntness Rattles World Leaders -- WSJ

4 Feb 2017 7:32 am

Exchanges show allies and foes that president 'doesn't feel confined by what he inherited'
By Carol E. Lee 

WASHINGTON -- President Donald Trump's blunt, win-the-deal approach to diplomacy has U.S. adversaries and some allies struggling to assess its impact for their countries and puzzling over how to react if they land in the new American leader's crosshairs next.

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who started his first day on the job Thursday, steps into a role of managing the effects of Mr. Trump's aggressive style of diplomacy and carrying out his vision of an "America first" foreign policy. That worldview has sparked concern among traditional allies as Mr. Trump has already begun setting a series of jarring foreign-policy actions in motion since taking office.

In a round of phone calls on Saturday with foreign leaders, Mr. Trump held a conversation with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in which he questioned an agreement reached under the Obama administration to resettle about 1,250 refugees in the U.S., calling it a "dumb deal." In another call, Mr. Trump urged Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto to get control of the "bad hombres" within his country, a reference one White House official said was to drug cartels.

Mr. Trump on Thursday tried to reassure those concerned about his approach.

"When you hear about the tough phone calls I'm having, don't worry about it. They're tough. We have to be tough," Mr. Trump said at the annual National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. "We're being taken advantage of by every nation in the world virtually."

On Friday morning, Mr. Trump wrote on Twitter, "Thank you to Prime Minister of Australia for telling the truth about our very civil conversation that FAKE NEWS media lied about. Very nice!"

For many U.S. allies, however, an unpredictable American president is unnerving. They haven't before seen a U.S. leader who proudly breaks protocol, makes policy pronouncements on Twitter and openly challenges longtime alliances and tenets of American foreign policy.

"The troubling thing for allies is this kind of hard-edged, transactional approach, where longstanding relationships and all that shared history and shared military sacrifices going back to World War I just doesn't seem to count for anything," said Andrew Shearer, who served as national-security adviser to two Australian prime ministers.

"Every deal is a struggle between a winner and a loser," he said of Mr. Trump's style. "That approach might work in business, but as someone who's been around foreign policy for a long time, I just don't see how it's going to work internationally."

Mr. Trump has delivered tough talk to America's adversaries, as well. He personally directed his National Security Adviser Mike Flynn to publicly put Iran "on notice" from the White House podium after Tehran test-launched a ballistic missile.

Mr. Trump has also signaled a sharper approach to China, though he hasn't escalated some pre-inauguration verbal clashes with Beijing.

Richard Haass, the chairman of the Council on Foreign Relations, said Mr. Trump has introduced uncertainty into the role the U.S. plays in the world.

"In the short run everyone is trying to get a handle on the new administration," Mr. Haass said. "But in the medium and long run, whether governments like or loathe what they're seeing, I believe what every government will do is essentially rethink its relationship with the United States."

The global anxiety has prompted some allies to rush for face time with Mr. Trump or his team. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel arrived in Washington Thursday morning to meet with the new secretary of state and with Vice President Mike Pence.

Mr. Gabriel's message was that the U.S. under Mr. Trump runs the risk of breaking from the American values that have shaped the trans-Atlantic alliance. "A solid structure of values ties us to the U.S., but one must stick to these values," Mr. Gabriel said, who is also Germany's foreign minister. "There can be no deviation from them, including of course the freedom of religion and how we treat each other in the world."

Germany has already pushed back on Mr. Trump's threats of new trade barriers and the president's executive order suspending immigration from seven Muslim-majority nations.

Perhaps Berlin's biggest concern is that Mr. Trump will treat the European Union as an economic adversary rather than a partner. In an interview with a German and a British newspaper last month, Mr. Trump said the EU was formed in part "to beat the United States on trade" and predicted more countries would follow the U.K.'s lead in leaving.

American officials sought to reassure Mr. Gabriel in their meetings with him on Thursday, the German minister said.

"Both Mr. Pence and Mr. Tillerson made it clear that they have a great interest in a strengthening of Europe, and that they also don't mix up the decision of Great Britain to leave the European Union with the beginning of a disintegration of the European Union," Mr. Gabriel said afterward.

In a sign of the jitters across the continent, European officials increasingly refer to Mr. Trump as a potential threat to EU unity -- alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom European officials have for years characterized as seeking to weaken the EU.

"Worrying declarations by the new American administration all make our future highly unpredictable," European Council President Donald Tusk, who represents the governments of the EU's 28 member states, wrote in a letter to EU leaders this week. He stressed the need to maintain a united Europe "whether we are talking to Russia, China, the U.S., or Turkey."

Mr. Trump's initial forays into foreign policy have drawn mixed reviews from Congress. Mr. Trump has bipartisan support for his promises to be more confrontational with China on trade and economic issues. And his sharp warning this week to Iran was well received by some top Republican lawmakers critical of the Obama administration's approach to Tehran.

"I think we've got an administration we can properly work with on the issue of Iran, so I'm very uplifted by it," Sen. Bob Corker (R., Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Thursday. The Trump administration is expected to adopt new sanctions against Iran as early as Friday in response to its ballistic-missile program and support for terrorism, U.S. officials said.

Iran brushed off the administration's warning, and has cautioned that new sanctions could violate and imperil the 2015 nuclear agreement between Iran, the U.S. and five other world powers.

But Mr. Trump's style also has raised concern among lawmakers. Sen. Chris Murphy (D., Conn.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Mr. Trump's handling of foreign policy has "been chaotic and unplanned and reckless."

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.) called Australia's ambassador to the U.S. after he heard about Mr. Trump's combative phone call with Mr. Turnbull on Saturday, and other lawmakers conveyed reassurances to Australia. "Everybody just needs to relax, and it's going to be all right," Sen. John Cornyn (R., Texas) said.

But diplomats in Europe were stunned by reports of the call. They fretted over the confrontation, given that Australia is one of America's closest allies and deployed troops to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We had hoped for a more nuanced, sophisticated version of Trump after inauguration," said a senior European diplomat. "Alas, that was not to be."

Privately some said they were worried the call could presage much tougher U.S. stance toward its allies, even as many officials stuck to their talking points. Asked about Mr. Trump during a trip to Sarajevo, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg noted Mr. Trump had expressed his support for the alliance.

In fact, Mr. Haass said, the new president has shown an openness to upending the foreign policy status quo. "He doesn't feel confined by what he inherited," he said.

Mr. Trump's approach has created conundrums for some world leaders.

British Prime Minister Theresa May -- eager for U.S. support as the U.K. extricates itself from the EU -- quickly came under pressure to cancel a state visit by Mr. Trump later this year after his executive order restricting America's refugee and immigration policy.

Tim Bale, politics professor at Queen Mary University of London, said Britain's coming exit from the EU has amplified concerns in the U.K. about Mrs. May's eagerness to align herself with Mr. Trump.

"The worry is that in leaving the EU, we're going to magnify our reliance on the United States, which, in normal times, wouldn't worry too many people," Mr. Bale said. "But Donald Trump doesn't seem to be a normal president."

--Anton Troianovski, Siobhan Hughes, Julian E. Barnes, Jenny Gross and Natalie Andrews contributed to this article.

Write to Carol E. Lee at carol.lee@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

February 04, 2017 02:32 ET (07:32 GMT)

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