The Real Impact of Trump’s Foreign Trips Happens After He Leaves

  • Gulf states, Poland take big policy gambles after hosting him
  • Criticisms of Polish moves to control courts are ‘fake news’

Trump Says Saudi Arabia Will Help Stop Terrorism

Donald Trump may be struggling to get things done at home, but in other parts of the world he’s proving a change-maker.

The U.S. president has made two foreign visits of his own choosing in the first six months of his presidency, to the Middle East and Poland. Both had rapid and major consequences, leading his hosts to believe they had American backing for high-stakes moves they had previously hesitated to make.

United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister Anwar Gargash confirmed this week that Trump’s “very, very successful” trip to the Gulf in May had helped trigger the decision by his country -- together with Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain -- to launch a political and economic assault on Qatar.

The June 5 move to cut diplomatic, trade and transportation ties with Qatar, closing its only land border, came little more than two weeks after Trump’s departure from the region. The president backed the decision in a tweet, saying the Arab leaders he’d met there had “pointed to Qatar” when he told them that funding of radical ideologies had to stop.

Taking Advantage

Poland waited just a week after Trump’s July 6 visit to pass legislation giving politicians more control over the judiciary, transferring to parliament the right to appoint the body that promotes judges. The government also proposed to terminate mandates of the current Supreme Court judges, and let the justice ministry decide which ones get to stay on and which are replaced. Ruling party lawmakers said they’d found an ally in the U.S. president, who depicted Poland as a model European nation.

“In both cases, what we saw was an attempt to manipulate Trump, to take advantage of his lack of knowledge and foreign policy infrastructure,” said Thomas Wright, director of the center on the U.S. and Europe at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

Trump has yet to impose his foreign-policy priorities on longstanding global problems, many of which also defeated his predecessors. North Korea’s missile-testing program has, if anything, accelerated since Trump came to office. The Israel-Palestinian question looks no closer to resolution. Syria’s civil war rages into its seventh year.

For many allies, the biggest worry has been that the new administration, with “America first” as its watchword, would destroy the liberal economic and security order constructed under U.S. auspices since World War II. Trump did lead his country out of the 2015 Paris Agreement, but no others have yet followed.

‘Hate the Press’

Still, evidence is growing of a concrete, if unpredictable Trump effect. Some NATO nations are accelerating plans to meet the alliance’s defense spending target -- encouraged to do so by Trump, but also looking toward a post-American era. The new president may also have contributed to a slump in support for fellow populists in Europe, who received sharp boosts from his election last year, only to see their electoral prospects recede again since he took office.

In Poland, officials haven’t attributed their bid to assert control over the judiciary to Trump’s visit, yet there’s little doubt they were emboldened by his support and the opinion-poll boost that it produced.

Stopping in Warsaw on his way to a summit of the Group of 20 nations in Hamburg, Trump made a foreign-policy speech arguing that Western civilization, defined by faith and culture, was in peril. He singled out Poland, the subject of an unprecedented investigation by the European Union for allegedly abusing the rule of law, as a beacon of freedom.

“He should have said, ‘We are your friend but we need you to uphold democratic institutions like the free press’,” said Wright. “Instead he said, ‘I hate the press too’.” 

‘Fake News’

The governing party seized on Trump’s comments, even adopting one of his favorite terms.

Political opponents have been spreading a false image of Poland as a totalitarian country, said Dominik Tarczynski, a Law and Justice legislator. “Slowly but surely we are managing to convince many countries that we’re dealing with fake news here, something President Trump spoke about during his visit.”

It remains to be seen whether the initiatives that Trump catalyzed in Poland and the Gulf work out as planned.

In Poland, the judicial reforms are proving controversial amid warnings they could damage the nation’s young democracy and deter foreign investors. The government backtracked on elements of its legislative proposals Tuesday, although the ruling party sought to rush the measures through.

On Wednesday, the European Commission said it was considering the possibility of imposing punitive sanctions. Poland has received about $285 billion of EU aid, almost two-thirds of its current annual gross domestic product, since joining in 2004.

Lawmakers reconvened Wednesday, after a heated debate that featured scuffles and ran past midnight. Opposition legislators tabled more than 1,000 amendments in an attempt to delay passage of the law, while protesters outside the parliament building chanted: “Freedom, Equality, Democracy.”

Tillerson ‘Mystified’

Trump at a welcome ceremony in Riyadh on May 20.

Trump at a welcome ceremony in Riyadh on May 20.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

The Gulf nations leading the isolation of Qatar have further to go to achieve their goals. Having delivered an ultimatum with 13 supposedly non-negotiable demands, the U.A.E. and its allies let their deadline expire. They then pared their list to six demands. Even those are just a starting point for talks, Gargash said on Monday.

Meanwhile, Qatar -- which hosts a key American military base -- has strengthened ties with Iran and Turkey as it maneuvers to survive the embargo, potentially realigning the region in a way that wouldn’t suit its Arab neighbors, or the U.S.

And despite Trump’s tweets in support of the Saudi-U.A.E. campaign, the rest of his administration has refused to take sides. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been actively seeking to mediate. Two weeks into the dispute, the State Department said it was “mystified” by the failure of the Gulf allies to back up their claims against Qatar with evidence, and questioned whether the dispute was really about terrorism at all.

That kind of ambiguity has led to trouble before, said Wright, the Brookings analyst. He said mixed signals from the U.S. contributed to the outbreak of wars on the Korean peninsula in 1950 and in the Persian Gulf four decades later -- two regions that remain top of the list of the world’s trouble spots in the age of Trump.

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