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Donald Trump's Indulgence of Putin, Xi and Kim Seen as 'Weakness and Manipulability' by World's Dictators: Veteran Diplomat

President Donald Trump’s overreliance on personal relationships to conduct global diplomacy is putting him at risk of exploitation by the world’s most powerful and ambitious dictators, a former deputy secretary of state has warned.

Speaking on the BBC’s HARDtalk program on Sunday, William Burns said Trump’s attempts to build personal relationships at the expense of traditional diplomacy would make him appear weak in high-level negotiations.

“In his effort to curry favor, to almost indulge and ingratiating himself with leaders like that, that’s perceived by [Vladimir] Putin, Xi Jinping, Kim Jong Un, as a sign of weakness and manipulability,” Burns, who has had a 30-year diplomatic career, explained.

The president is often criticized for being obsequious when meeting with strongman leaders. He told a news conference that he believed Putin’s denial of meddling in the 2016 presidential election, contradicting the analysis from his own intelligence agencies. He praised young dictator Kim’s ability to command respect among his officials. He lauded Xi’s appointment as Chinese president for life—even suggesting the U.S. should try a similar system.

In all three examples, Trump consistently failed to address rampant human rights abuses, corruption, espionage and military aggression. His approach to autocrats stands in stark contrast to that toward Western democratic allies, with whom he is often belligerent and openly critical.

Those who know the billionaire real-estate veteran say he approaches international diplomacy like he would a business deal, which he believes rests on the ability of individuals to forge a personal connection. The president holds great faith in his negotiation skills, and believes he can secure a deal on any issue by getting in the room with the other leader.

The folly of such an approach is evident in some of his most high-profile foreign policy failures. North Korean denuclearization is at a standstill because the U.S. and North Korea are still too far apart on their demands, despite Trump’s efforts to bridge the gap by meeting his “friend” Kim twice.

The president’s long trade war against China persists with Trump unable to win adequate concessions from Beijing, despite what the president has described as a close friendship between himself and Xi. It appears personal relationships can only go so far in complex geopolitical strategy.

Since taking office, Trump has failed to properly staff the State Department. There remain hundreds of vacancies worldwide, undermining America’s diplomatic network and foreign policy. Burns warned of the dangers posed by a combination of a weak diplomatic system and a president overly focused on personal relationships.

“A focus on personal relationships is important, but it has to be coupled with a hard-nosed business of diplomacy; building leverage and trusting professional diplomats and others to carry through policies,” Burns explained. “Without that, diplomacy becomes narcissism.”

Donald Trump Vladimir Putin dictators President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin shake hands during a joint press conference after their summit on July 16, 2018 in Helsinki. Chris McGrath/Getty Images

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