The main story lines as Trump returns to Europe

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President Trump left behind a humid and soggy Washington on Wednesday for his second official visit to Europe. He landed in Poland on Wednesday night for a brief tour ahead of the main item on his agenda: the Group of 20 summit in Hamburg. There, Trump is expected to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin face-to-face for the first time.

From most accounts, Trump’s time at a NATO meeting in Brussels and the Group of Seven summit in Sicily in May did not go well. It was marked by awkward public exchanges with his European counterparts and barbed comments in private. The following week, apparently angered by French President Emmanuel Macron’s gloating comments about a white-knuckle handshake with the U.S. president, Trump decided to thumb his nose at Europe and pull the United States out of the Paris climate accord.

The stakes are even higher — and the potential for gaffes perhaps greater — on Trump’s return visit.


Trump walks past NATO leaders at the alliance’s new headquarters in Brussels on May 25. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The shadow of the North Korean crisis

The big, global conundrum on everyone’s mind lies further to the east. North Korea’s Independence Day gift to Americans — a first-ever test of an intercontinental ballistic missile — was perhaps its most provocative move yet. It prompted sharp repudiation from U.S. officials and an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council on Wednesday.

Nikki Haley, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations,  said the option of using military force against North Korea was on the table. She urged China, whose president will be at Hamburg, to exert more pressure on Pyongyang. She also said the United States was preparing a resolution to expand sanctions against North Korea. Haley’s Chinese and Russian counterparts at the Security Council instead cautioned against escalation and pushed for further dialogue. Expect concerns over the North Korean threat to surface at the summit.

The Trump-Putin meeting

On Friday, the biggest focus for many Americans will be the tete-a-tete between Trump and Putin, a meeting that has been hotly anticipated since Trump’s victory in November. In the intervening months, Trump’s eagerness to mend fences with the Kremlin has run up against a firestorm of controversy at home over Russian efforts to hack the U.S. election and suspected collusion between members of Trump’s camp and Russian officials.

“For the foreseeable future, the most important item by far on the U.S.-Russia relations agenda will be avoiding direct collision, which might lead to war,” said Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Center, to my colleague David Filipov.

According to reports, aides have repeatedly briefed Trump — who seems conspicuously averse to preparation — ahead of the meeting. The ongoing disputes over Syria and Ukraine, among other thorny issues, are expected to be discussed. But national security adviser H.R. McMaster said last week that Trump has “no specific agenda” for the meeting, and there’s a fear that Trump, a novice in a world of realpolitik where Putin is a master, may get sucked into problematic discussions.

“You could end up having the entire conversation on [Putin’s] topics and his terms,” said Jon Finer, a former Obama administration official, to my colleague David Nakamura.

“There’s a fair amount of nervousness in the White House and at the State Department about this meeting and how they manage it because they see a lot of potential risks,” said Steven Pifer, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, to the New York Times. “There is this gray cloud for the president of the investigations about collusion, so any kind of a deal is going to get the micro-scrutiny of, ‘Is this a giveaway to the Russians?’ “

When it comes to Russia, Trump has few good options to grant or win concessions from Putin. As some experts suggest, no deal may be the best deal for now.

A curious visit to Poland

Before facing the G-20 in Hamburg, Trump will enjoy a happier moment in Poland. The country’s right-wing nationalist government is ideologically friendly to his brand of populism, and Warsaw has been at odds with much of the European establishment on a host of issues, including its hostility to migrants and asylum seekers.

Trump’s speech at a nationalist monument in the Polish capital gives both governments a pleasant photo op. In fact, according to Polish media reports, Warsaw specifically promised the White House cheering crowds as part of the invitation to Trump.

Trump’s remarks, McMaster said, are expected to “lay out a vision, not only for America’s future relationship with Europe, but the future of our transatlantic alliance.”

The showdown at the G-20

The Warsaw speech could set the stage for what happens in Hamburg. Already, battle lines are being drawn over Trump’s rejection of the international consensus on climate change, his seeming apathy toward the U.S.-authored liberal order and his hostility to globalization.

The E.U. and Japan are expected to announce on Thursday plans for a new free trade agreement; U.S. officials, meanwhile, are expected to push their counterparts at the G-20 to crack down on China’s steel export practices. “The divergent trade approaches have set up the G-20 as a potential crossroads for the international economic order,” note my colleagues Damian Paletta and Ana Swanson.

“Anyone who thinks the world’s problems can be solved with isolationism and protectionism is simply delusional,” warned German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week in Berlin, in a broadside clearly aimed at Trump. The divisions may only be exacerbated at the summit.

“The contrast between the visits to Poland and Germany could spark the reemergence of the ‘old Europe’ versus ‘new Europe’ narrative that soured transatlantic relations over a decade ago,” wrote Derek Chollet, a former Obama administration official, referring to how the administration of President George W. Bush fell out with leading nations in Western Europe over the 2003 invasion of Iraq. “After a rousing stop in Warsaw, it is easy to see the Trump team pushing this line, explaining away its problems with Europe as not part of some broader problem, but an issue specifically with France and Germany.”

That would make matters even more interesting ahead of another trip next week, when Trump will fly to Paris.

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