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News Analysis: President Trump's Debut Abroad Packs Unconventional Twists

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the start of the NATO summit at the alliance's new headquarters in Brussels on May 25.

Most U.S. presidents have made their first trip abroad to nearby destinations like Canada or Mexico. But if there’s one thing Donald Trump has proven over his first four months in office, it's that he’s no conventional president.

Instead of dipping his toes into safe diplomatic waters, the current U.S. commander in chief embarked on a nine-day whirlwind tour of the Middle East and Europe that included stops in Saudi Arabia, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Brussels, Rome, and Sicily.

Amid bruising battles at home over a proposed budget, health care, his firing of an FBI director, and investigations into contacts with Russia, Trump was hoping to win over a global audience that is skeptical over his administration’s “America First” agenda.

His attempts to build relationships with leaders of key allies appear to have yielded mixed results, giving both supporters and critics plenty of ammunition.

Jordanian King Abdullah II, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, U.S. President Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Riyadh (right to left)
Jordanian King Abdullah II, Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, U.S. President Donald Trump, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Muhammad bin Zayid al-Nahyan, and Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in Riyadh (right to left)

Saudi Arabia

After taking off in Air Force One on May 20, Trump opened the first leg of his tour in Riyadh to much pomp and circumstance as he looked to assure King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud and leaders from more than 50 Muslim nations of U.S. support for their regime and that his administration was not anti-Islam.

To that end, his pledge that Saudi Arabia and other Sunni-led Muslim countries in the region “will never question our support” and that “we are not here to lecture” went over well with his audience, even if it miffed human rights activists who wanted Trump to deliver a stern message about a lack of protection of human rights in the region.

The U.S. president didn’t come empty-handed, either. He brought a $110 billion arms deal, with options running as high as $350 billion over 10 years, to sign with Saudi Arabia.

Trump has said the deal is needed to curb the terror threat in the region, while he also wants to use international weapons sales as a way to create jobs in the United States, messages his supporters applaud.

But some U.S. lawmakers had a different opinion, with Democratic and Republican members of both the Senate and the House of Representatives taking moves to try and block at least parts of the sale, which marked a major pivot in U.S. policy, questioning whether the move would be in the country’s best interests.

"This deal has President Trump throwing gasoline on a house fire and locking the door on his way out," said Eric Ferrero, communications director at Amnesty International USA.

U.S. President Donald Trump prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22.
U.S. President Donald Trump prays at the Western Wall in Jerusalem on May 22.

Israel and the Palestinian Authority

On May 22, Trump moved on to Israel and the Palestinian Authority for another two-day stop.

Trump’s agenda was packed as he visited the Western Wall, the Holocaust Remembrance Center Yad Vashem, and the Israel Museum, while meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas.

Visits to both Christian and Jewish sites, as well as his meeting with Abbas, showed Trump once again reaching out to various religions as he tried to lay the foundation for a push toward peace negotiations for what the U.S. president has called “the ultimate deal.”

But he also strayed from a campaign promise by ruling out, at least for the interim, a controversial pledge to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Israel sees Jerusalem as its eternal capital and wants all countries to locate their embassies there, while many U.S. allies oppose such a move since the Palestinians also claim the city as their capital.

And once again controversy followed the U.S. president, with critics noting a brief aside after a press conference with Netanyahu in which Trump told a crowd of journalists and television cameras that he never mentioned Israel when talking to Russian officials about classified information in the Oval Office, marking the first time a U.S. official had publicly suggested that the sensitive intelligence at issue came from Israel.

Trump was also taken to task for the note he left at the Holocaust memorial, which some felt was far too light-hearted for the occasion. The president wrote that the site was “so amazing” and that he “will never forget” it.

“Trump's note at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Israel is basically just what teenagers write in each other's high school yearbooks,” Israeli writer Yair Rosenberg wrote on Twitter.

The reaction to Trump's visit was harsher still in the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz.

“He wanted to rehabilitate an image tarnished by accusations of anti-Semitism. But the U.S. president's 'spiritual grand tour' stop in Israel was an absurd series of empty gestures,” the paper said in an opinion piece that also mocked the president’s note at Yad Vashem by running a photo of it next to a more extensive note left by former U.S. President Barack Obama in 2008.

Pope Francis (right) meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Vatican on May 24.
Pope Francis (right) meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Vatican on May 24.

Vatican City

The third leg of Trump’s visit, and arguably its least contentious, saw the president visit Vatican City to meet Roman Catholic Pope Francis and Italian President Sergio Mattarella.

Given the rocky start to their relationship when the pontiff questioned Trump’s Christian credentials during the latter's U.S. campaign, the meeting was considered a success as the two men exchanged gifts and spoke cordially for half an hour.

Francis gave Trump a signed copy of his 2017 peace message, Nonviolence -- A Style Of Politics For Peace, and texts including his 2015 encyclical on the need to protect the environment from the effects of climate change.

During his election campaign, the president questioned scientific evidence showing manmade causes of climate change, calling it a "hoax." Trump also received a sculptured olive tree from the pontiff, who said he hoped the president would “become an olive tree to construct peace.”

Trump said it was a “great honor” to meet Pope Francis, who lightened the mood by joking with Melania Trump about a dessert she must be feeding the president from her native Slovenia ("potica" not "pizza").

U.S. President Donald Trump at EU headquarters in Brussels on May 25.
U.S. President Donald Trump at EU headquarters in Brussels on May 25.


After mostly smooth sailing in Italy, Trump almost immediately ran into problems as he arrived in the European Union capital, Brussels, on May 25.

Less than a year after he called NATO "obsolete" -- although he subsequently reversed himself -- Trump visited the transatlantic military alliance's leaders at their new billion-dollar, state-of-the-art headquarters for meetings that members hoped would show it is more relevant than ever.

But his talks with European officials saw the president called out in public over his treatment of Russia and an embarrassing leak of sensitive information regarding a terror attack at a Manchester concert venue on May 22 that killed 22 people and injured dozens more.

European Council President Donald Tusk appeared to bluntly challenge Trump, urging the promotion of “Western values” in contrast to what he suggested were inward-looking policy stances on climate change, trade, and especially Russia.

“My main message to President Trump was that what gives our cooperation and friendship its deepest meaning are fundamental Western values like freedom, human rights, and respect for human dignity,” Tusk said after the meeting.

“The greatest task today is the consolidation of the whole free world around those values -- not just interests. Values and principles first: This is what we Europe and America should be saying,” he added.

British Prime Minister Theresa May then took aim at the issue of leaks from an investigation into the Manchester terror attack that had left British authorities infuriated with their U.S. counterparts.

Instead of being critical of Russia over its annexation of Crimea, as some NATO members had hoped, Trump pressed leaders from the 27 other member states to fulfill their financial obligations to the alliance -- he scolded them for the “massive” sums they owe -- and do more to fight terrorism and put immigration and threats from Russia at the top of their agenda.

More notably, however, the president did not make any explicit mention of Article 5, the NATO alliance’s mutual defense pact that states an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all members. Every U.S. president since Harry Truman had made a direct pledge to support the article.

That omission prompted White House press secretary Sean Spicer to note when asked about U.S. commitment to Article 5 that Trump was "100 percent" committed to collective defense. "We are not playing cutesy with this. He is fully committed," Spicer said.

If Trump was seen as strong-arming members from the lectern during the Brussels leg of his trip, his apparent jostling of Montenegrin Prime Minister Dusko Markovic to get ahead of him on a walkway only made things worse.

“It’s a group of nations that are banded together, literally a 'band of brothers,' as Shakespeare would have said. To get people together, you need to get them into consensus,” NATO Association of Canada President Robert Baines said. “Instead, we have a tenor of almost bullying -- really slapping people down for not doing what they are supposed to.”

G7 leaders in Sicily: European Council President Donald Tusk (left) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (far right) pose with the G7 country leaders on May 26.
G7 leaders in Sicily: European Council President Donald Tusk (left) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (far right) pose with the G7 country leaders on May 26.

Sicily For G7

The setting for the final leg of Trump’s trip may have been dramatically different, but the issues brought up at a G7 meeting in the picturesque clifftop town of Taormina, Italy, were the same: the fight against terrorism, climate change, migration, and free trade.

With four of the seven leaders, including Trump, attending their first G7 meeting, members were looking for signs of potential policy shifts amid growing global challenges.

The leaders vowed to do more against terrorism, to fight protectionism as well as “unfair trade practices,” and expressed a readiness to impose “further restrictive measures” on Russia, if warranted, for its intervention in Ukraine.

However, they failed to settle a disagreement on climate change, with Trump refusing to recommit to the 2015 Paris accord on curbing greenhouse gas emissions.

The bloc of some of the wealthiest countries in the world meets each year to discuss issues including the global economy, security, and energy. Its current members make up nearly 50 percent of the world economy and represent more than 60 percent of net global wealth.

The G7 must "put fairness at the heart" of all it does, understanding that many people see globalization as a threat rather than an opportunity, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said at the opening of the summit on May 26.

Trump began the first day of the summit by meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whom he previously hosted at his Mar-a-Lago resort in February where the two played golf while talking policy.

In Italy, North Korea was a major topic of their discussions, which Trump said "is very much on our minds."

A former U.S. State Department official, Ambassador Reuben Brigety, told RFE/RL on May 26 that Trump's first trip abroad had yet to articulate a positive view on how the United States would engage its traditional allies.

"The president's team have a lot of work to do when they get back to Washington to refashion American foreign policy in a coherent manner, on one that can be something that the rest of the world can depend on," Brigety, now the dean of the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University, said.

With reporting by Antoine Blua in Prague, Rikard Jozwiak in Brussels, Reuters, AP, AFP, CTV, dpa, and the BBC