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Summits like the G20 in Osaka bring out worst in Trump: opinion

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Summits are not supposed to be for strutting. Beyond the family photo of world leaders, they are structured to focus on substance over splash. The most powerful people on the planet get to spend a substantial amount of time together, building more personal bonds. This isn’t a format that tends to suit one Donald J. Trump.

The braggadocios American president has struggled mightily at past summits. He literally pushed the leader of Montenegro aside during a NATO photoshoot so he could be out in front. There was the famous photo of Trump menacingly surrounded by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her friends at the G7 Summit. After being subjected to such harsh conditions, he has resorted to firing off threatening tweets and making false claims.

This go around is not likely be much better. The world has grown weary of his bullying and bulldozing. His counterparts have caught on to his tactics and theatrics. They have developed pretty good coping and containment strategies. Most of all, he just doesn’t have much to show for his time on the global stage.

The first problem is his friendships are often fleeting. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tried, only to find himself slapped with some tough tariffs. British Prime Minister Theresa May maybe made minor inroads, yet soon was treated to his takedowns of her Brexit strategy. French President Emmanuel Macron had his bromance, but still got dumped on issues like Syria and Iran. Apart from Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu, perhaps only Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been able to keep things mostly heading in the right direction.

Trump’s loose relationship with the truth troubles fellow leaders. It’s one thing to make up what a domestic political opponent said or did. That’s par for the course in politics, even if this White House takes it to new extremes. Fibbing about another nation’s foreign policy is a whole different matter.

Falsely suggesting deals were struck or costly promises made generally doesn’t sit well with other countries. They tend to think these sorts of things are for the most part within their prerogative to decide. Heads of state now head to these summits with a certain degree of dread, knowing he may just make up commitments on their behalf.

These gatherings are also usually a chance for world leaders to drop the politics and pretense. For once, their schedules aren’t as planned into tight five-minute increments, with aides accompanying them at every moment.

They are for one forced into a series of extended engagements, which afford them time for side conversations and informal interactions. Trump has trouble dropping his act. He doesn’t do well without his entourage and a stage on which to entertain.

Summits are normally based on the notion all leaders should be treated equally. This doesn’t sit well with Trump. We have seen repeated examples of just how uncomfortable he becomes when placed on an equal footing with others. It’s one of the reasons I think we tend to see some of his most dramatic performances during these events. He is desperately trying to dominate and redirect the attention back to his role as principle protagonist.

There remains a slight possibility that this need to reassert his preeminence just might produce something positive. Perhaps in an attempt to once again seize the narrative, he finally settles on a deal with China. Potentially, he patches things up with Modi and puts US-India trade back into the fast lane.

Less probable would be reopening talks on an American return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Of course, it would only happen on the condition it was renamed, preferably, the Trump Pacific Partnership.

In the past, summits have provided presidents and prime ministers with a powerful, personal platform. They often have achieved more progress in those few days than in the months or years issues were negotiated on other levels. Unfortunately, in the era of Trump, summits have largely become little more than a sideshow. We worry about how badly it will go this time. We wonder what is still left to break. Rather than resolving global crises, they now tend to produce them.

Bruen is president of the crisis communication firm, the Global Situation Room Inc. and an adjunct professor of crisis management at Georgetown University. He was director of global engagement in the Obama White House and an American diplomat for many years.

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