Leah Millis / REUTERS Trump boards Air Force One at Beale Air Force Base, California, November 2018.

Trump Doesn’t Like Traveling. That’s Bad for Diplomacy.

The Importance of Presidential Jet-Setting

One of U.S. President Donald Trump’s few consistent views is that the United States must replace grand, multilateral bargains with more favorable bilateral deals. As he said of the Trans-Pacific Partnership in a 2016 speech, “We need bilateral trade deals. We do not need to enter into another massive international agreement that ties us up and binds us down.” But two years into Trump’s presidency, the results are underwhelming. A deal with China has proved elusive. Trump’s new agreement with Canada and Mexico amounts to little more than a rebranded NAFTA. A grand bargain with North Korea still seems unlikely, notwithstanding the announcement on Friday of a second summit between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are fraying, and relations with Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey are little better than they were two years ago, despite Trump’s efforts to cultivate personal relationships with those countries’ leaders. The art of the deal has fallen flat.

It’s not hard to see why. Trump’s bull-in-a-China-shop performances at international summits—by now so familiar that December’s relatively uneventful G-20 came as a surprise—and his fixation on particular issues, such as allies’ defense spendingtrade deficits, and European car imports, at the expense of the bigger policy picture, drive home that Trump is better at dismantling deals than making new ones. 

But there’s an even more basic problem with his diplomacy: Trump does not put in the legwork. He travels abroad little, and the trips he does make rarely end up achieving what he wants.

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Presidential time is a scarce resource. Where a president travels sends an important signal about his priorities, because foreign visits invest U.S. prestige in the relationship with the host country and stake the president’s reputation on the outcome of the meeting. Trump’s predecessors planned their travel carefully, and they did a lot of it. 

Trump does not. His hopes

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