WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump was already revved up when he emerged from his limousine to visit NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels in May. He had just met France’s recently elected president, Emmanuel Macron, whom he greeted with a white-knuckle handshake and a complaint that Europeans do not pay their fair share of the alliance’s costs.
On the long walk through the NATO building’s cathedral-like atrium, the president’s anger grew. He looked at the polished floors and shimmering glass walls with a property developer’s eye. By the time he reached an outdoor plaza where he was to speak to the other NATO leaders, Trump was fuming, according to two aides who were with him that day.
His visceral reaction to the $1.2 billion building, more than anything else, colored his first encounter with the alliance, aides said.
Nearly a year into his presidency, Trump remains an erratic, idiosyncratic leader on the global stage, an insurgent who attacks allies the United States has nurtured since World War II and who can seem more at home with America’s adversaries. His Twitter posts, delivered without warning or consultation, often make a mockery of his administration’s policies and subvert the messages his emissaries are trying to deliver abroad.
Trump has pulled out of trade and climate change agreements and denounced the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. He has broken with decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. And he has taunted Kim Jong Un of North Korea as “short and fat,” fanning fears of war on the peninsula.
He has assiduously cultivated President Xi Jinping of China and avoided criticizing President Vladimir Putin of Russia — leaders of the two countries that his own national security strategy calls the greatest geopolitical threats to America.
Above all, Trump has transformed the world’s view of the United States from a reliable anchor of the liberal, rules-based international order into something more inward-looking and unpredictable. That is a seminal change from the role the nation has played for 70 years, under presidents from both parties, and it has lasting implications for how other nations chart their futures.
Trump’s unorthodox approach “has moved a lot of us out of our comfort zone, me included,” the national security adviser, Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, said in an interview. McMaster defined Trump’s foreign policy as “pragmatic realism” rather than isolationism.
Trump’s advisers argue that he has blown the cobwebs off decades of foreign policy doctrine and, as he approaches his anniversary, that he has learned the realities of the world in which the U.S. must operate.
They point to gains in the Middle East, where Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is transforming Saudi Arabia; in Asia, where China is doing more to pressure a nuclear-armed North Korea; and even in Europe, where Trump’s criticism has prodded NATO members to ante up more for their defense.
“Most foreign leaders are still trying to get a handle on him,” said Richard N. Haass, a top State Department official in the George W. Bush administration who is now the president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Everywhere I go, I’m still getting asked, ‘Help us understand this president, help us navigate this situation.’ ”
Few countries have struggled more to adapt to Trump than Germany, and few leaders seem less personally in sync with him than its leader, Chancellor Angela Merkel, the physicist-turned-politician. After she won a fourth term, their relationship took on weighty symbolism: The great disrupter vs. the last defender of the liberal world order.
For Merkel and many other Germans, something elemental has changed across the Atlantic. “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,” she said in May. “The times in which we can fully count on others — they are somewhat over.”
There have been fewer misunderstandings with autocrats. Xi of China and King Salman of Saudi Arabia both won over Trump by giving him a lavish welcome when he visited. The Saudi monarch projected his image on the side of a hotel; Xi reopened a long-dormant theater inside the Forbidden City to present him and his wife an evening of Chinese opera.
Later, chatting with his aides, Trump continued to marvel at the respect Xi had shown him. It was a show of respect for the American people, not just for the president, one adviser replied gently.
Critics say Trump gives more than he gets.
Trump granted an enormous concession to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he announced earlier this month that the United States would formally recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. But he did not ask anything of Netanyahu in return.
That showed another hallmark of Trump’s foreign policy: how much it is driven by domestic politics. In this case, he was fulfilling a campaign promise to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. While evangelicals and some hard-line, pro-Israel American Jews exulted, the Palestinians seethed.
With China, Trump’s cultivation of Xi probably persuaded him to put more economic pressure on its neighbor North Korea over its provocative behavior. But in return for Xi’s efforts, Trump has largely shelved his trade agenda vis-à-vis Beijing.
“It was a big mistake to draw that linkage,” said Robert Zoellick, who served as U.S. trade representative under George W. Bush. “The Chinese are playing him, and it’s not just the Chinese. The world sees his narcissism and strokes his ego, diverting him from applying disciplined pressure.”
For some of Trump’s advisers, the key to understanding his statecraft is not how he deals with Xi or Merkel, but the ideological contest over America’s role that plays out daily between the West Wing and agencies like the State Department and the Pentagon.
“There’s a chasm that can’t be bridged between the globalists and the nationalists,” said Steve Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist and leader of the nationalist wing.
On the globalist side of the debate stand McMaster, Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump’s chief economic adviser, Gary Cohn. On the nationalist side, in addition to Bannon, stand Stephen Miller, the president’s top domestic adviser, and Robert Lighthizer, the chief trade negotiator.
The globalists have curbed some of Trump’s most radical impulses. He has yet to rip up the Iran nuclear deal, though he has refused to recertify it. He has reaffirmed U.S. support for NATO, despite his objections about those members he believes are freeloading. And he has ordered thousands of additional U.S. troops into Afghanistan, even after promising during the campaign to stay away from nation-building.
Trump acknowledges that being in office has changed him. “My original instinct was to pull out,” he said of Afghanistan, “and, historically, I like following my instincts. But all my life I’ve heard that decisions are much different when you sit behind the desk in the Oval Office.”