To G-20 Leaders, Trump’s Bully Boy Routine Has Grown Old

He’ll insult them in public, then demand a deal behind closed doors. The meeting in Osaka is another test case of the president’s dealmaking skills.

By Robbie Gramer, a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President Donald Trump fist-bumps Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a meeting at the G-20 summit on in Osaka, Japan, on June 28.
U.S. President Donald Trump fist-bumps Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a meeting at the G-20 summit on in Osaka, Japan, on June 28. Carl Court/Getty Images

With U.S. President Donald Trump taking part in his third G-20 summit this week in Osaka, Japan, the world has grown fairly used to his negotiating style. He’ll most likely publicly insult longstanding U.S. allies, then turn around and demand they play ball on his foreign-policy priorities behind closed doors.

It’s an all-too-familiar habit—along with Trump’s full-on embrace of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he shared a laugh on Friday about Russian meddling in U.S. elections.

But two and a half years into his presidency, the bully boy approach hasn’t gotten Trump all that far. He did manage to orchestrate a successor deal to NAFTA—one that looked a lot like its predecessor—and extract some more defense money from NATO countries. With frequent insults and threats, Trump also pushed the Mexican government to do more to address immigration, including sending 6,000 troops from the Mexican National Guard to its own southern border to stem the flow of migrants from Central America. 

So far, however, there haven’t been a lot of other goodies—and some experts say any short-term gain from the strong-arming tactics can come at a long-term cost. Today, foreign leaders can brush off the insults. Tomorrow, they might be less willing to strike a deal—or even face domestic political pressure to avoid one, lest they be seen as folding to the demands of a president who is deeply unpopular abroad. 

“Trump feels this tactic tills the ground, puts foreign leaders more on edge, and puts him in a more dominant negotiating position,” said Nancy McEldowney, a former senior U.S. diplomat now at Georgetown University. “But what he’s also done is creating a lot irritation between allies.”

That outcome can cost the United States when it needs allied support on key issues like sanctions against Iran or North Korea, or the recent attempt to induce Western nations and Japan to ban Huawei, the Chinese telecommunications giant that Washington alleges could be spying for Beijing.

This week, Trump was at it again. He railed against the U.S.-Japanese defense alliance as unfair, saying if the United States were attacked, Tokyo could leave Washington in the lurch and instead “watch it on a Sony television.” But U.S.-Japan trade talks are still dragging on. He also targeted India in a tweet over “unacceptable” trade practices and Germany for not paying enough on defense in NATO, setting the stage for tense face-to-face meetings in Osaka. But only eight of NATO’s 29 member countries meet the NATO guideline of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense. Germany, at 1.24 percent 2018, has not signaled it will reach the defense spending threshold anytime soon. Trade talks with India are ongoing but remain tense, following Trump’s decision in early June to remove India from a group of developing countries given preferential trade status with the United States. 

Back in 2017, at his first G-20 summit, Trump’s public slights might have jarred his foreign counterparts. Over two years into the administration, however, they seem to have become inured to them, letting the jabs roll off their backs and grimacing through the media coverage they produce. And this annual gathering of world leaders from 20 of the world’s leading economies in Osaka will be another test case of the impact of the vintage Trumpian approach to diplomacy. 

“I think allies have figured this out,” said Derek Chollet, a scholar at the German Marshall Fund of the United States and a former senior U.S. Pentagon official. “This is not the first time they’ve dealt with Donald Trump—they’ve become accustomed to expecting the unexpected.” 

James Roberts, a former U.S. diplomat who is now with the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank, said it’s a calculated move on Trump’s part to jab and prod allies before heading to the negotiating table with them. “They know that there’s the Twitter-sphere Trump, and the real serious negotiator Trump,” he said. Roberts said it can be an effective negotiating tactic on issues like trade disputes or getting allies to shoulder more of the defense burden.

“These are tactics. … At the end of the day, I don’t think that these will backfire,” he said, pointing to Trump’s success at the southern border in particular. 

But Chollet said his tactics cause his partners political problems at home, “and it also creates uncertainty about whether the U.S. is truly committed to the partnership.” 

There’s also the cultural angle, said McEldowney, particularly for U.S. allies like Japan and India with high-context cultures that place a premium on diplomatic nuance and subtleties. “You can’t overlook how these cultures operate and the leaders’ room to navigate and maneuver in terms of bringing back a result and how it’s played at home, it’s restricting their capacities,” she said. 

At the G-20 summit, Trump has plenty of opportunities to test out his negotiating skills again—meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi over trade tensions and with Chinese President Xi Jinping amid a U.S.-China trade war. He is also meeting with European counterparts as he pushes a harder-line policy on Iran, and with Russian President Vladimir Putin as he starts talks on what the White House calls a “21st century model of arms control.” 

In his meeting with Putin, Trump appeared to make light of Russia’s interference in the 2016 U.S. elections when pressed by a reporter, shedding his hard-line negotiating tactics for a lighter tone. He turned to Putin with a grin and said, “Don’t meddle in the election, president.” Putin smiled back.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer