The president of the United States often talks as if being the world’s pre-eminent superpower isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. After all, as he complains again and again, the U.S. showers the world with expensive military commitments, generous trade deals, and aid, and gets nothing in return. But there is one undeniable advantage for America’s military and economic might: Trump can say whatever he wants about other countries, and their leaders are still desperate to curry favor with him.
Today, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari became the first sub-Saharan African leader to visit Trump’s White House. The heaping pile of elephant dung in the room was Trump’s description of African nations as “shithole countries” in a meeting with U.S. senators in January. In another meeting last year, Trump reportedly said, referring to visa recipients from Nigeria, that they would never want to “go back to their huts” after seeing the United States. During a joint press conference, Buhari addressed a question about the “shithole” remark by saying he did not raise the issue, since he was not sure if Trump had really said it. Trump, rather than deny or apologize for the comment, all but repeated it, saying, “You”—Africa, presumably—“do have some countries that are in very bad shape and very tough places to live in.”
It was an uncomfortable moment, but one Buhari has basically no choice but to tolerate. Nigeria wants U.S. weapons and funding in its ongoing fight against Boko Haram—the Trump administration lifted restrictions on arms sales to Nigeria, after the Obama administration restricted them over human rights concerns—so Buhari can’t really afford not to talk to Trump.
News outlets reported over the weekend that Trump will finally make his long-awaited first trip to Britain in July—though it will be a relatively low-key “working visit.” May was the first foreign leader to visit Trump after his inauguration, and there was a plan for Trump to make a full state visit to Britain, complete with a stop at Buckingham Palace. But Trump has strained the “special relationship” since then by doing things like publicly feuding with the mayor of London, criticizing Britain’s immigration policies immediately after a terror attack, and retweeting a fringe British hate group. Over the weekend, after the new visit had been announced, Trump again slammed the new location of the U.S. Embassy in London, which was moved and upgraded for security reasons. Given the state May’s government is in, she’s not scoring many political points by meeting with a leader as toxic as Trump. But Britain needs a post-Brexit trade agreement with the U.S. more than May needs to take a stand.
There’s clearly little love lost between Trump and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. He has described her immigration policies as “insane” and called Germans “bad, very bad” because of the number of cars they sell in the U.S. And yet, there she was at the White House last week, in hopes of winning an exemption for the EU from the steel and aluminum tariffs Trump announced last March and persuading the president to remain in the Iran nuclear deal. (Chances for success look dim on both fronts.)
It’s probably dispiriting for citizens of these countries, and Trump’s opponents in the U.S., to watch these leaders travel to Washington to kiss the ring or invite Trump to their capitals. But the reason someone like former Mexican President Vicente Fox can become an internet hero by trolling Trump is that he’s a former president. The leaders still responsible for their countries’ security and economies don’t have that luxury. Opposition leaders like Mexico’s Andrés Manuel López Obrador or Britain’s Jeremy Corbyn can score easy points by blasting their countries’ sitting leaders for trying to get along with Trump. It will be interesting to see whether they remain so defiant if they are actually elected to replace those incumbents.
As Benjamin Haddad of the Hudson Institute wrote last week, addressing Americans, “Guys, you chose him. Now we deal with him. The rest of the world can’t just complain that it was fake news and Russia and invite Clinton to summits.” For these leaders, he added, “their responsibility is to defend their own interests, not lecture Americans on their political choices. Engaging Trump, as best as they can, is the logical calculation based on the simple fact the US is the most powerful country on earth.”
Of course, some foreign governments basically decided that engaging with Trump is a waste of time. The Palestinian Authority has essentially boycotted contacts with the administration—including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who’s currently in the Middle East—since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement in December. But for most countries, there’s much more at stake than for the Palestinians.
What makes this more depressing to watch is that despite Trump’s boasts about his personal relationships with world leaders, it’s not clear how much being nice to him really gets you. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has built one of the closest relationships to Trump of any world leader over frequent meetings, phone calls, and rounds of golf at Mar-a-Lago. Yet Japan has still found itself marginalized when it comes to both trade negotiations and North Korea. South Korean President Moon Jae-in has gone out of his way to give Trump credit for the recent breakthroughs with North Korea, yet Trump not only has declined to return the favor, he continues to bully and threaten South Korea. And for all the “bromantic” bonhomie between Trump and Emmanuel Macron last week, the French president says he still suspects Trump will drop the Iran nuclear deal. (Macron has developed one of the more innovative responses to the Trump problem: cozying up to him in person, then repudiating his whole worldview the next day.)
Given how mercurial the president can be, and how quickly even someone like Kim Jong-un can go from “nut job” to “very honorable” in his view, it’s probably still worth it for most leaders to suck it up, fly to Washington, laugh at his jokes, and see if you can influence him even a little.