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President Trump’s First Overseas Visit

By Thomas Armbruster:

It’s a small bit of political theatre, but important nevertheless.  Every first overseas Presidential visit is calculated for effect.  For Bill Clinton, George H.W. Bush and Obama’s first term it was Canada, the country with which we share the longest border and the most shared values and outlook on the world.  After his second term Obama went to South Korea to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.  That signaled not only the importance of reducing nuclear weapons, a stated goal for Obama, but also reinforced the “Pivot to the Pacific” or “rebalance.”

Teddy Roosevelt, a pioneer in so many ways, was the first U.S. President to travel overseas while in office.  He went to Panama to inspect construction of the Panama Canal.  FDR was the first truly globetrotting President with 21 trips abroad.  With a World War on his hands it was no wonder that Roosevelt would take it upon himself to meet with allies to not only win the war but also chart the global map for the coming peace.  FDR’s record stood until Ronald Reagan’s Presidency.  He took 25 trips abroad.  Bill Clinton, the current record holder, more than doubled Reagan’s record with 54 international trips and Barack Obama is in second with 52.  Even if it is a fairly recent “tradition,” the first international trip abroad is now, and forever will be, an important diplomatic marker, designed to signal where a new President is going.

A Trump trip to the Asia/Pacific would be good for the U.S. image in that region, especially if we are pulling out of the Trans Pacific Partnership, but there is another important order of business on the agenda first.

Canada and Mexico remain good choices, always, given the importance of trade with the two countries, but the campaign has made the Mexico equation so complex a “symbolic” first visit would be hard to achieve.  There is still too much diplomatic work to be done to repair the relationship and find common ground.  Canada would not be a bad choice, if only to visit all the Americans who said they were moving there if Trump were elected!  Just kidding.  With the reality of the election comes the reality of hard choices like this one.  The U.S. needs allies throughout the world and we need to signal to the world that we intend to play a leading role in international affairs.  Withdrawing from the TPP and the Global Climate accord are not popular moves in Europe or Asia so Trump should find other ways to play ball with the world and signal U.S. leadership and direction.

There are other bad choices.  Scotland, a lovely place and a sane voice on Brexit is out given Trump’s business interests and golf course.  China is out unless Trump is ready to negotiate a “grand bargain” that solves our trade deficit with China, North Korean aggression, and regional security all in one go.  Again, that type of trip requires a fully developed plan based on more than midnight tweets and campaign rhetoric.

Japan and the U.K. are both favorites as big time allies and neither one would be a bad choice.  Visiting a hot spot like Afghanistan, where the U.S. has invested a lot of blood and treasure over the years, would also be appreciated by the troops and diplomats still there trying to bring order and stability.  That would not signal any grand plan, but would be a welcome stop anytime.

Then there is South America.  A region long said to be neglected by U.S. Presidents, but a place where American presidents are not always particularly welcome.  Cuba is another long, long shot but the media would love it.  And we know that Trump has a weak spot for making headlines.

Maybe for his first international trip, Trump should take his cue from Richard Nixon.  Nixon of course was a Cold War President and his first international trip was to Brussels, NATO Headquarters.  Sending an unequivocal message that the U.S. stands by NATO and our commitment to the security of each NATO member would redress Trump’s misstep during the campaign that called into question U.S. readiness to consider an attack on one NATO member an attack on all — the Collective Defense commitment in Article 5 of the NATO charter.

Trump could go further and actually visit a Baltic country, the most likely territory for any testing by Russia of NATO’s resolve, but that would be like waving a red flag in front of the bull.  Likewise, a trip to Moscow right off the bat would encourage those who believe Trump is already in Putin’s pocket.   Brussels is the right first stop to remove any ambiguity about U.S. intentions and direction.  And I hear the chocolate is pretty good, too.

Thomas Armbruster is an OpsLens Contributor and former U.S. Ambassador to the Republic of the Marshall Islands. In his long career as an American diplomat, Thomas Armbruster served as the Consul General at the U.S. Consulate General in Vladivostok, Russia, Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Tajikistan, Principal Officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, Political Affairs Officer and Nuclear Affairs Officer at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, Russia; and Vice Consul at the U.S. Interests Section in Havana, Cuba. Prior to joining the Foreign Service, he was a reporter for the CBS affiliate KGMB-TV in Hawaii. Mr. Armbruster holds a B.A. from McDaniel College, an M.A. from St. Mary’s University, and an M.S. from the Naval War College.