Trump and the strongmen: how US leader fell for autocrats

Pierre DONADIEU
·4-min read
Donald Trump has described his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as 'very, very strong.'

Trump and the strongmen: how US leader fell for autocrats

Donald Trump has described his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin as 'very, very strong.'

He "fell in love" with Kim Jong Un, praises Vladimir Putin and calls Recep Tayyip Erdogan "a friend": President Donald Trump's flattery of autocrats has confounded US allies and raised questions about his regard for democratic norms.

But analysts expect America's traditional friendships to be restored in a post-Trump era, saying his fascination with unfettered power is a personality quirk that has not translated into an official change in foreign policy.

"He's psychologically terrified by weakness," Peter Trumbore, professor of political science at Oakland University in Michigan said.

Trump's attraction to power was on display long before he won the White House on a promise to "make America great again."

In a 1990 interview with Playboy magazine, the billionaire property developer declared that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who helped end the Cold War, had "not a firm enough hand" with pro-democracy demonstrators.

Three decades later, he continues to lavish praise on leaders who wield power ruthlessly while bashing longtime democratic allies such as Canada and Germany.

In a recording, the US president admitted he was fond of authoritarian leaders, telling journalist Bob Woodward the "tougher and meaner" they are, "the better I get along with them."

-  'President for life' -

In 2017, he threatened dictator Kim Jong Un with "fire and fury" if "Little Rocket Man" endangered the US, only to shake his hand in a historic visit to North Korea two years later.

While Trump's outreach to Kim won plaudits, his assessment that the mercurial North Korean, who is accused of gross human rights violations, had a "great and beautiful vision for his country" was met with widespread derision. 

With China too, his message has swung wildly, lurching between tough talking on trade and the spread of Covid-19, to praise for Chinese President Xi Jinping after China's ruling party abolished term limits in 2018.

"He's now president for life... I think it's great," Trump declared.

While some surmised the remark was made in jest it chimed with the warm words he has had for Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has also steadily increased his own powers and whom Trump calls a "friend."

But it is the Republican's relationship with Russia's Putin that has attracted the most attention, in light of claims that Moscow meddled in the 2016 election to boost Trump's chances, allegations which Russia denies.

At a summit with Putin in 2018, Trump appeared bowled over by the former secret services chief, saying he believed him over the FBI on the allegations of campaign interference, and describing his counterpart as "very, very strong."

- 'Real man' rule -

For Trumbore, it's plain to see: Trump is "envious of the power these strongmen wield".

"When he sees Erdogan or (Hungary's Prime Minister Viktor) Orban he sees democratically elected presidents who have essentially used institutions of democracy to turn their states into soft authoritarian regimes. I think Trump wants that for himself."

Charles Kupchan, professor of international affairs at Georgetown University, also ascribed Trump's rapport with autocrats to envy, tinged with "a certain macho inclination." 

"He probably likes that Putin rides a horse without a shirt on and appears like a 'real man'," Kupchan said.

The Trump administration argues he has made America safer by cultivating ties with longtime foes.

But analysts say his approach has yet to show results.

For Maud Quessard, a US specialist at the Institute for Strategic Research in Paris, Trump's message is chiefly aimed at "showing his electorate that he is a strong president." 

The leader who campaigned as a deal maker extraordinaire lacks the patience needed for diplomatic success in Kupchan's view.

"Diplomatic breakthroughs do not come when two leaders sit down together with no preparation. They come through years of hard work and preparation."

"With North Korea, none of that happened. It went nowhere".

Meanwhile, relations with old allies in continental Europe took a beating, with Trump cheering Britain's decision to quit the EU and claiming the union was created merely "to take advantage of the United States".

For Brooks Spector, a former US diplomat based in South Africa, the main risk of a second Trump term "would be a greater confusion" on the international stage.

"What are the goals of the US policy? What are the expectations? What does the US realistically expect from Iran, Russia, with its trade disputes with China? 

"There's a lot of head scratching in world capitals about what exactly the US wants to see happen. People look for the strategy or tactics and they don't seem to find it very easily."

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