He “fell in love” with Kim Jong Un, praises Vladimir Putin and calls Recep Tayyip Erdogan “a friend”: President Donald Trump’s flattery of autocrats has confused American allies and raised questions about his respect for democratic norms.
But analysts expect America’s traditional friendships to be restored in a post-Trump era, saying his fascination with unbridled power is a personality failure that has not translated into an official change in foreign policy.
“He’s psychologically afraid of weakness,” said Peter Trumbore, a professor of political science at Oakland University in Michigan.
Trump’s attraction to power was on display long before he won the White House on a promise to “make America great again.”
In an interview with Playboy magazine in 1990, the billionaire real estate developer declared that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped end the Cold War, “did not have a firm enough hand” with Democratic protesters.
Three decades later, he continues to praise leaders who exercise power ruthlessly while bashing longtime Democratic allies like Canada and Germany.
In a recording, the US president admitted that he liked authoritarian leaders, telling journalist Bob Woodward that they were “harder and heavier”, “the better I get along with them.”
‘President of Life’
In 2017, he threatened dictator Kim Jong Un with “fire and rage” if “Little Rocket Man” threatened the United States, only to shake hands during a historic visit to North Korea two years later.
While Trump’s outreach to Kim won applause, his assessment that the North Korean mercury accused of gross human rights violations had a “big and beautiful vision for his country” was met with widespread ridicule.
Also with China, his message has fluctuated wildly between the harsh talk of trade and the proliferation of Covid-19 to praise Chinese President Xi Jinping after China’s ruling party lifted time limits in 2018.
“He is now president of life … I think it’s amazing,” Trump declared.
While some assumed the remark was made, it joked with the warm words he has had for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has also steadily increased his own powers and whom Trump calls a “friend.”
But it is the Republicans’ relationship with Russia’s Putin that has attracted the most attention in light of allegations that Moscow interfered in the 2016 election to increase Trump’s chances, accusations that Russia denies.
At a summit with Putin in 2018, Trump appeared bent over by the former intelligence chief and said he believed him over the FBI on allegations of meddling in the campaign, describing his counterpart as “very, very strong.”
‘Real man’ rule
For Trumbore, it is clear to see: Trump is “envious of the power these powerful forces wield”.
“When he sees Erdogan or (Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor) Orban, he sees democratically elected presidents who have essentially used democratic institutions to turn their states into soft authoritarian regimes. I think Trump wants that for himself.”
Charles Kupchan, a professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, also attributed Trump’s relationship with autocrats to envy, colored by “a certain macho inclination.”
“He probably likes Putin riding a horse without a shirt on and appearing to be a ‘real man,'” Kupchan said.
The Trump administration claims he has made America more secure by cultivating ties with longtime enemies.
But analysts say his approach has not yet shown results.
For Maud Quessard, an American specialist at the Institute for Strategic Research in Paris, Trump’s message is primarily aimed at “showing his constituents that he is a strong president.”
The leader, who fought as an extraordinary deal, lacks the patience required for diplomatic success in Kupchan’s view.
“Diplomatic breakthroughs do not come when two leaders sit together without preparation. They come through many years of hard work and preparation.”
“With North Korea, none of that happened. It went nowhere.”
Meanwhile, relations with old allies on continental Europe struck a chord, with Trump cheering Britain’s decision to leave the EU, claiming that the Union was created only “to benefit the United States”.
For Brooks Spector, a former US diplomat based in South Africa, the biggest risk for another Trump term would “be a major confusion” on the international stage.
“What are the goals of US policy? What are the expectations? What does the US realistically expect from Iran, Russia, with its trade disputes with China?
“There’s a lot of head-scratching in the capitals of the world about what exactly the United States wants to see happen. People are looking for strategy or tactics, and they don’t seem to find it very easy.”