Trump Set for Warm But Short-Lived Welcome at First Stop in Europe

  • Prickly G-20 summit will follow cheering crowds in Poland
  • President to push for U.S. dominance as an energy exporter

North Korea Tensions Set to Dominate G-20

There won’t be sword dancing this time, but the choreography for Donald Trump’s second trip abroad as U.S. president will be familiar.

A traditional ceremony with Arab heads of state was among the highlights for Trump’s red-carpet treatment when he visited Saudi Arabia at the start of his first trip in May. In Warsaw, where he lands on Wednesday evening, the welcome looks set to be just as warm. Poland’s populist leaders have described Trump’s visit as a national triumph and have been recruiting supporters to attend his speech on Thursday.

As with that earlier tour, though, any warm glow is likely to be short-lived before Trump is confronted with the reality of his standing in the world order.

From Poland’s capital, Trump will fly to Hamburg in Germany for a meeting of the Group of 20 leaders that begins Friday. There, he’s likely to find himself in an uncomfortably small minority on major issues such as climate change and free trade, much as he did at the G-7 gathering that followed his trip to the Middle East. The German government has drafted as many as 15,000 police from around the country to keep protesters under control.

“He is going to Poland to say ‘I favor this kind of Europe, as opposed to our more traditional allies in Europe’," said Wendy Sherman, a former undersecretary of state for political affairs during the Barack Obama administration. "It was probably quite conscious to go there first to send a message about his priorities.”

Divisive Leaders

Trump has much in common with the current Polish government. Both are nationalist in their approaches and take a skeptical view of free media and independent courts. Meanwhile, Poland’s policy of "economic patriotism," influence on the media and courts, and opposition to accepting refugees from the Middle East have put the country at odds with European Union institutions led by Germany and France, or "Old Europe."

Some commentators in Poland and western Europe have worried Trump may use his speech in Warsaw’s central Krasinski Square to divide the EU in the way that former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld did before the Iraq war.

“Trump’s visit in Poland is perceived in Berlin, Paris and even in Brussels as dividing Europe, which is unusual,” said Katarzyna Pelczynska-Nalecz, a former deputy foreign minister and ambassador to Russia.

On Monday, Poland’s pro-government Gazeta Polska newspaper ran a full-page advertisement inviting readers to the U.S. president’s “first speech in Europe,” and to a picnic to follow at the national sports stadium. For two weeks already, similar posters have been plastered around the capital and lawmakers from the governing Law & Justice Party have been offering to bus in social media followers.

Energy Security

As in Saudi Arabia, there will be business to showcase. Trump last week pledged in a speech to make the U.S. a “dominant” exporter of energy, creating jobs at home and “true energy security to our friends, partners, and allies all across the globe.” The U.S. last month delivered its first shipment of liquid natural gas to the new terminal on Poland’s north-western coast.

Trump will also attend a summit of the Three Seas Initiative while in Warsaw. Launched jointly by Poland and Croatia last year, the group consists of 12 east European countries bounded by the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas. Most are ex-Soviet bloc states that remain heavily dependent on Russia for natural gas and concerned for their energy security.

“Clearly the Poles are using the Saudi playbook in terms of preparing the visit and making sure it will be a happy trip for him,” said Derek Chollet, executive vice president of the German Marshall Fund, a transatlantic think tank. “The G-20 will be much scratchier.”

Strongmen Club

White House officials say Trump will seek to balance his “America First” approach with the need to strengthen U.S. alliances. “America First does not mean America alone,” said Gary Cohn, Trump’s top economic adviser.

Indeed, Trump may feel less alone this time. Unlike the G-7, this week’s summit will include many of the strongmen with whom he appears to feel more at ease, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India, Xi Jinping of China, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Those leaders are unlikely to snub Trump in public, the way French President Emmanuel Macron did in Brussels, when he made as if to shake hands with Trump first, only to swerve away to take German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s.

On climate change and trade, however, Trump risks simply finding an even larger group of nations lined up against him.

“The withdrawal from the Paris agreement does mean that there will be a coalition, which is there, quite committed, but doesn’t include the U.S.,’’ said Amar Bhattacharya, a senior fellow for global economy and development at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “That’s really a first in post-World War II history on an issue of that scale.”

Trump is considering whether to impose punitive measures on steel imports for reasons of national security. Cohn indicated that the administration would prefer collective action at the G-20 to advance fair trade and combat the dumping of steel, but that the U.S. was willing to act unilaterally.

A tweet from Trump just before taking off for Europe on Wednesday suggests that this summit could be as confrontational as the last: "The United States made some of the worst Trade Deals in world history. Why should we continue these deals with countries that do not help us?”

It’s the first meeting between Trump and Putin that’s expected to dominate the event. And once again, the prior visit to Warsaw could help Trump to navigate that, given the pressure he has come under in Washington over Russia’s alleged meddling in the election that brought him to power. Poland has been particularly concerned about the perceived Russian threat.

“I am quite sure there are people who made the argument internally that they needed to go to Poland to show solidarity” with the countries most concerned about Russian pressure, said Chollet at the German Marshall Fund. “All these things are planned.”

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