President Donald Trump departs today for his first foreign trip, a nine-day voyage that will take him across the Middle East and Western Europe. Although the trip will be shadowed by Trump’s growing problems at home, it could shape his foreign policy in important and lasting ways.
Trump will encounter a slew of thorny foreign policy issues on his trip, which features stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, a G7 meeting in Sicily, a NATO summit in Brussels and a visit to the Vatican.
Here are five things to watch:
1. Which he say “radical Islamic terrorism”?
During his first stop in Saudi Arabia, Trump will give a speech focused on Islam and terrorism. He might come in with rhetorical guns blazing. Trump once said that Saudi Arabia “blew up the World Trade Center” and has accused it and other Gulf Arab states of supporting terrorism. He said in March 2016 that “Islam hates us.”
But fans of Trump’s tough talk may be disappointed. His Saudi hosts, and the Muslim leaders who will gather in Riyadh for a summit while Trump is there, would be infuriated by such rhetoric from their guest. They will be expecting a more temperate message in the vein of Trump’s predecessors, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, who argued that Islam is a religion of peace and that the United States is not at war with the world’s Muslims. In a briefing last week, National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said Trump’s speech would be “respectful.”
One thing to watch is whether Trump’s address uses the phrase “radical Islamic terrorism.” McMaster has urged Trump to avoid using that phrase, which Trump often repeated as a candidate but which Obama and Bush both avoided because it offends many Muslims. Trump has used the construction publicly at least twice since McMaster took the job in February—though McMaster hinted at a possible compromise during a briefing at the White House last week, when he said Trump would speak about “radical Islamist ideology,” which he said “uses a perverted interpretation of Islam to justify crimes against all humanity.”
2. Will he play Middle East peacemaker?
Trump’s second stop will be in Israel. The visit itself will draw an implicit contrast with Obama, who had testy relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and who did not stop in Israel during his first visit to the Middle East in 2009. Despite the controversy over whether Trump shared classified intelligence provided by Israel with Russian officials in the Oval Office last week, a bigger focus of his visit will be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Trump insists he wants to broker a historic agreement between the two sides, despite decades of failed efforts to reach one—and despite wariness among Israeli officials that Trump might want a deal more than they do.
Close observers of the region will be watching not only Trump’s interactions with Netanyahu but also with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas. Trump has a meeting with Abbas planned, but a key question is whether he will convene Abbas and Netanyahu in an effort to jump-start peace talks that have been dormant for three years. “Will there be a three-way Trump-Bibi-Abbas meeting—and if so will there be any announced understandings from it?” asked Dennis Ross, a former Middle East policy adviser to several presidents.
3. Does he really support NATO?
Trump spent much of the 2016 campaign criticizing NATO. Many European leaders were relieved to hear Trump say in an April press conference with Italy’s prime minster that the 28-member military alliance is “no longer obsolete.” But Trump said that in response to what he says is NATO’s new attention to terrorism, which in fact remains a secondary mission for the alliance.
What Trump has still not done as president is affirm NATO’s role as a guarantor of European security—particularly against Russia, the country NATO was formed to defend against. Trump has also not committed to observe the part of the treaty that commits every member to defend one another against aggression. During the campaign, Trump suggested that the United States might not come to the defense of a NATO member that had not met its budgetary commitments to the organization. (Most NATO members spend less on defense than they have pledged.)
“To me the big question is if he endorses the original mission, which he hasn’t done,” said Thomas Wright, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution.
4. Can he stick to a script?
Longtime Trump watchers are keen to see how he’ll handle the many opportunities to stray from the script prepared for him by McMaster and other national security professionals. A shoot-from-the-hip president on a long and tiring first trip out of the country is a recipe for multiple missteps, gaffes and comments that could send confusing messages about U.S. policy. Distracted by a barrage of controversies at home, including Wednesday’s appointment of a special prosecutor to probe Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election, Trump has had little time to focus on the briefing materials his staff has prepared for him. Events like G7 and NATO meetings are typically choreographed affairs in which everyone knows what everyone else will say in advance, but no one is sure just what to expect from Trump.
“This is not a president who tends to follow the script,” said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University professor who served as the Obama National Security Council’s top aide for Europe. Anytime Trump meets with a foreign leader, “you don’t know what you’re going to get,” Kupchan said.
That’s even more likely in multilateral meetings like the ones Trump will attend next week, “when everyone’s just kind of speaking extemporaneously,” Kupchan said.
5. Can he change the subject?
Presidents have long savored the opportunity to skip town at times of domestic trouble and drag a captive White House press corps through foreign meetings where the commander-in-chief is treated like a potentate. Regardless of a president’s approval ratings at home, foreign officials always welcome an American leader with camera-friendly pomp and circumstance.
But presidents often find that a change of scenery isn’t enough. “You can’t really change the subject,” said one former senior Obama White House official who recalled long trips abroad in which White House reporters cared less about Obama’s interactions with foreign leaders than about controversies brewing back in Washington. Obama and his aides spent much of a November 2012 trip to Asia, for instance, fielding questions about a looming fiscal crisis in Washington that overshadowed his diplomatic message. On another Asia trip in the fall of 2015, Obama parried tough questions about GOP criticism of his policy towards the Islamic State and Muslim refugees. (It is unclear how often Trump will field questions from the reporters traveling with him—or whether he will at all.)
The good news for Trump is that the particulars of his first foreign trip will attract more play-by-play attention than most presidential jaunts. The bad news is that the easiest way to change the subject from his headaches at home is to commit a gaffe that adds to his mounting woes.