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The Straits Times says

What allies learnt from Trump's tour

The visits of United States President Donald Trump to the Middle East and Europe confirmed what many of America's allies have long feared: Trumpian foreign policy is basically about narrow self-interest. Indeed, it is also very much a work in progress. On climate change, for instance, an official said: "His views are evolving. He came here to learn." For now, the world has to hold its breath till Mr Trump indicates if he has learnt anything at all from the Group of Seven (G-7) summit in Italy. His partners tried hard but failed to make him see the sense of honouring the legally binding global climate deal on curbing carbon emissions, struck in 2015.

The pact came together only after a Herculean effort involving 195 countries. But Mr Trump's notion that global warming is a hoax could prompt others to abandon the pact. It was not surprising, therefore, that the leaders of Germany, France, Britain, Italy, Canada and Japan were left frustrated after their meeting with Mr Trump. This is hardly the form of leadership one expects from the world's pre-eminent power, especially when opting out will put at risk billions who will have to bear the impact of climate change.

In economic matters, too, Mr Trump lacks what his critics say is "a rigorous understanding of the complexities of trade", not to mention a firm grasp of factual details. In uttering during his trip that Germany is "bad, very bad" for trade practices like flooding American markets with German cars, he was apparently unaware that these form a mere 7 per cent of US car sales. Further, many of the cars are manufactured in the US, with BMW basing its single largest plant in the world in the US state of South Carolina. Some of these made-in-America cars are exported to the world, which helps bring down the trade deficit with America's trading partners.

Mr Trump's focus on deficits reflects a simplistic view of trade. Higher tariffs on German products, for example, would shift the deficit elsewhere, as other foreign products gain market share. A leader with a better grip on economics would look for ways to keep all markets open (which the G-7 gratifyingly endorsed) and to make nations with huge trade surpluses do more to boost broad-based demand in their economies.

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Shaping a foreign policy with nuance calls for a deeper understanding of history, trends, threats and the art of diplomacy. Mr Trump was right to ask Nato members to "contribute their fair share" as only five out of 28 nations have met the agreed defence budget target. But the in-your-face manner in which he made the call left many dismayed. Mr Trump's focus on striking good deals for America risks alienating long-time allies. It also replaces US strategic leadership in managing complex global change with a wheeler-dealer mentality on major issues.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 30, 2017, with the headline 'What allies learnt from Trump's tour'. Print Edition | Subscribe