Canada succeeded, and Sweden flubbed, in dealing with Trump
© Greg Nash

Who will be President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP congressman slams Trump over report that U.S. bombed former anti-ISIS coalition headquarters US to restore 'targeted assistance' to Central American countries after migration deal Trump says lawmakers should censure Schiff MORE’s next target? Last Friday, the government in Stockholm unexpectedly found themselves in the crosshairs of the new American president. The Australian Prime Minister had earlier discovered how now even a courtesy call with a close ally can quickly turn cantankerous.

These incidents shouldn’t have come as a surprise to either country. The era of Donald Trump demands the practice of a different kind of diplomacy. There are three principal changes countries need to make: pivot to the personal with the president, work to more proactively set the agenda, and prior preparation for problems is essential.

Just like Justin, bond before business. Canada’s Prime Minister did it pretty well. He didn’t come to Washington with a long list of policy objectives. Instead, he focused on forging a close personal connection with Trump over a photo and flattery. Japan’s Shinzo Abe smartly worked golf and good times at Mar a Lago into his visit. More than his predecessors, the current occupant of the White House views international relations through a lens of personal relations. Before, a good rapport between leaders could help grease the wheels of their national interests. Now, his personal preferences largely define the state of our relations.


Most diplomacy is reactive. Foreign governments no longer have this luxury when dealing with the United States. The young Canadian leader masterfully executed this proactive approach. Putting a women’s entrepreneurship initiative on the agenda set a tone for collaboration, not confrontation. It aligned Canada with work Trump’s daughter Ivanka is looking to undertake. That gave them important leverage. Suddenly, the trade issues with our neighbors that Trump had talked so much about seemed to disappear.


Nations need new crisis capabilities. The old approach of a foreign ministry carefully considering and then issuing a strongly worded statement doesn’t work. First, Trump won't use diplomatic language, which is part of his power. A formal response will be lost amidst the headlines parroting his sophomoric style. It will also come too slow. Coverage of his comments will have already framed the issue. So what is a country to do?

Diplomats need to develop creative countermeasures.  The weakness with Trump’s comments is found in their shallowness. There is often an opportunity to fill in key details or direct them towards a more preferable outcome. He's driven by an obsession with being the principal protagonist and cares less about the substance. So, help him finish the script.

Sweden got it wrong. They wanted to lecture him with actual facts, which only produces more attacks. Rather than “informing the U.S. administration” about the situation in their country, they should have seized the chance to constructively engage with Trump and his team. I would have tweeted, “We are deeply committed to the security of our immigration system. Let’s hold a U.S.-Sweden summit to exchange the latest best practices.” That would have changed the context of the conversation considerably and put them in the pilot’s seat.

Take a page out of Boeing’s flight manual on how to manage Trump turbulence. When he raised concerns about the costs of a new presidential aircraft, the company employed a "we are so glad to you mention it" strategy. Rather than confrontation, they cast conversation as one about a chance for renewed cooperation.  This earned them consideration for the F-35 contract and even a promotional visit to their South Carolina plant.

Trump has concentrated foreign policy decisions in his hands and those of a few close associates. Indeed, he seems to be paying little attention to the opinions of the experts at the State Department. This creates an opening for savvy foreign diplomats. First, the complexity of bilateral relations now can be boiled down to the personal and parochial preferences of the president. Second, his key advisors don’t have much time to dedicate to developing new policies on individual countries. So, propose something that gets things rolling in the right direction. Finally, start developing countermeasures now. They may well ensure you are able to avoid getting Trumped. 

Brett Bruen is president of the consulting firm Global Situation Room and an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He was director of global engagement in the Obama White House and a diplomat for twelve years.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.