Samuel Ribansky: Why Donald Trump is no Ronald Reagan when it comes to diplomacy

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore
U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korea leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore
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US President Donald J. Trump’s diplomacy has been described as erratic, inconsistent, and at times bullish. Yet, following his actions since he assumed the highest US office, particularly his use of business-like negotiation tactics in international diplomacy, many have drawn parallels between him and Ronald Reagan. It is not difficult to see why. Both assumed office during periods of geopolitical uncertainty and a majority of their international dealings focussed on trade and – notably – international denuclearisation efforts.

Those for whom Trump represents the return of Reagan – the man credited with ending the Cold War – welcome Trump’s “way of doing business”, as it reminds them of their hero.

But Trump is no Reagan and it shows.

There are two main differences between the way Reagan and Trump approach foreign policy. Differences that explain how Reagan played a significant role in dismantling the Soviet Union and avoided a nuclear war, while Trump, the former reality TV star, seems set on bringing the world to the brink of one.

First, Reagan was a seasoned politician, who did not believe in strong-arming his counterparts into making concessions, but rather sought personal connections that would make it easier to address otherwise sensitive issues. That was precisely what allowed him to form a bond with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and play a pivotal role in bringing down the “Iron Curtain”.

Trump, on the other hand, has a much more inconsistent approach to dealing with other world leaders. This was particularly apparent at the G7 Summit in Charlevoix this past weekend. After meeting the Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, he hailed US-Canadian relations “good or better” only to then call Trudeau “meek” moments after the concluding Press conference.

Second, as intuitive as it may sound, Reagan prepared and had a plan.

Domestically, he understood when the time was right to be protectionist and when to embrace globalisation. Internationally, he understood which buttons to push for the US to effectively protect its interests globally.

This level of understanding of how to adapt to forces greater than the sheer economic power of the US and nuance his negotiating position accordingly seems to elude Trump.

While the President may be basking in the success of his summit with Kim Jong-un in Singapore, his approach to global politics creates anxiety not only among US adversaries, but also among key allies.

Upon closer observation, Trump’s “take it or leave it” style of negotiations in his dealings with North Korea presents more problems than solutions to the challenges they seek to address. While less obvious in his dealings with North Korea, the dangers of Trump-style diplomacy lie in its threat to US relationships with its allies.

Until recently, Trump deployed these tactics against the usual suspects. But the abrupt announcement of the steel and aluminium tariffs, holding, as Jean-Claude Juncker put it, his main trading partners at gunpoint, marked a shift in this trend. Trump publicly placed US major allies and trading partners in the crosshairs. The G7 provided a full-fledged exposure of why that is extremely problematic.

First, because of his “take it or leave it” approach, Trump destroyed the hard-fought and very skilfully crafted appearance of the unity of the G7 leaders. Furthermore, he attacked his own allies in the process, fostering a climate of distrust and irritation.

Second, this put into question the relevance of the G7 format and had leaders scrambling for another way of showcasing unity. Trump’s sabotage of the G7 joint communiqué was particularly worrisome in the context of the ‘other summit’ happening this weekend – the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, the major implication being that while China and Russia appeared united, the West is as fragmented as ever.

Trump’s business-like style of negotiations is dangerous. It antagonises traditional US allies as we have seen at the G7. Where Reagan’s style of politics helped bring balance to the world and addressed existing threats, Trump creates imbalance and uncertainty.

At the same time, the outlook is not all bleak, as the President’s behaviour will most likely foster closer relations between Europe, Canada, and Japan, where unity among a G6 is better than disunity among a G7.

Samuel Ribansky is a Politics and Philosophy student at the University of Sheffield who attended the G7 summit.