- - Tuesday, May 22, 2018

BUENOS AIRES — They have finally started getting used to the Trump administration’s style of foreign policy, but on key issues — such as the Iran nuclear deal, Middle East peace and international trade — some of America’s closest allies say they still have deep doubts that the president is on the right track.

Speaking on the sidelines of a summit of Group of 20 foreign ministers in Argentina’s capital, the top diplomats of Australia and the Netherlands — arguably two of Washington’s most reliable partners for decades — spoke of having forged a “good working relationship” with the Trump foreign policy team, but both also worry about the prospect of trade wars and the U.S. decision to go it alone in abandoning the Iran nuclear deal.

In a sit-down with The Washington Times, Australian Foreign Minister Julie Bishop said she was encouraged by the apparent “truce” in U.S.-Chinese trade talks but hinted that her country — exempted from steel and aluminum tariffs on a “conditional basis” — was less comfortable with Mr. Trump’s protectionist “America first” policies.

“We are very keen to ensure that the United States continues to embrace free, open, liberalized trade and acknowledges that the international economic order, including the [World Trade Organization], are vital to maintain global prosperity,” Ms. Bishop said, but she conceded that “the WTO is not perfect, and there can be some reforms.”

Echoing his Australian counterpart, Dutch Foreign Minister Stef Blok said in an interview that while the apparent detente between Washington and Beijing made him hopeful, he hoped the summit of the world’s major industrialized nations — which he was attending as a special invitee — would underscore Europe’s opposition to new trade barriers.

“Of course, my main worry is that the whole system of international trade agreement, multilateral agreement, is very much under threat,” Mr. Blok said. “Here at the G-20, we will explain how important we consider those agreements and free trade.”

The Dutch diplomat said that on a stopover in Washington before arriving in Buenos Aires he addressed a thorny issue at the intersection of trade and national security: whether the end of the Iran accord would leave European companies vulnerable to secondary U.S. sanctions if they continue to do business with Tehran.

Mr. Blok said he reminded Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and National Security Adviser John R. Bolton last week that the Obama administration encouraged Dutch firms to invest in Iran in a bid to boost the prospects for the nuclear accord.

“They understood the position of those companies and indeed the fact that [the companies] went there in good faith, even encouraged by both governments,” he said. “[But] that didn’t lead to the conclusion that they should be exempted from any sanctions.”

Mr. Blok and Ms. Bishop said they considered the U.S. withdrawal from the agreement to be a mistake and insisted that Tehran was in compliance with its obligation. Their view is at odds with Mr. Trump’s contention that “we have definitive proof that this Iranian promise was a lie.”

“According to the inspectors that have been there 10 times, Iran stuck to its obligation,” the Dutch diplomat said. “So I think indeed this deal was better than no deal.”

There has been little sign that the allies’ unhappiness has caused Mr. Trump and his aides to reconsider. Mr. Pompeo told reporters at the State Department Tuesday that the 12 “demands” he outlined for Iran to dismantle its nuclear and missile programs and stop its destabilizing moves in the region were “a low bar to clear.”

“There aren’t a special set of rules that we set forward yesterday for Iran,” said Mr. Pompeo, expressing confidence that European powers, China and Russia will eventually sign on to Mr. Trump’s approach. “We simply asked [Iran] to behave the way normal, nonbelligerent nations behave.”

Ms. Bishop said she hoped Tehran would remain in the agreement, though her choice of tense perhaps indicated that she had doubts about the likelihood of that happening.

“Although the agreement was not perfect by any means and it didn’t deal with Iran’s ballistic missiles nor its behavior in the region, it most certainly dealt with Iran’s nuclear ambitions,” the Australian said. “In the absence of any alternative agreement, it was worth pursuing and worth concluding.”

Common values

Though neither of the diplomats was shy to point to such differences with the Trump administration, both stressed that their common values and long histories of partnership with the United States far outweighed any differences and the occasional raised eyebrow over an irreverent Trump tweet.

“The U.S. is and will be the largest democracy, the largest free-trading country in the world, so whatever happens, we will remain close friends and allies,” Mr. Blok said.

Ms. Bishop said that “the Australia-U.S. relationship is as close as two countries can be.”

Even personal relationships can recover from rocky beginnings, said Ms. Bishop, citing the notorious first phone call between Mr. Trump and Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in early 2017. A leaked transcript found the recently inaugurated Mr. Trump “blasting and badgering” Mr. Turnbull, as The Sydney Morning Herald put it at the time, before the conversation abruptly ended.

But today, “Prime Minister Turnbull has met President Trump on a number of occasions, and they get along very well,” Ms. Bishop said.

She said she spoke with Mr. Pompeo “shortly after his confirmation by the Senate, and I look forward to a very positive working relationship with him.”

Though reportedly in the midst of considering a WTO complaint over U.S. steel and aluminum tariffs, the Japanese delegation refused to take umbrage, at least publicly. Instead, it highlighted the bond Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has established with his American golfing buddy. While long a hawk on North Korea, Mr. Abe is backing Mr. Trump’s hoped-for Singapore summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un next month.

“President Trump and Prime Minister Abe have an excellent relationship,” said Toshihide Ando, the foreign ministry’s deputy press secretary, speaking through a translator. “We have very high expectations for [the summit] to deliver important progress.”

Not every diplomat at the summit was so diplomatic.

Asked about Iran and the U.S. threat of steel tariffs, an at-times visually irritated German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas skipped over the customary call for trans-Atlantic unity.

“We want to sustain the nuclear deal with Iran because it delivers a benefit of security and transparency for us in Germany and for us in Europe — since Iran is part of our extended neighborhood,” Mr. Maas said. On tariffs, he added, “I can only say that … we’re ready to talk and to negotiate as well, but not at gunpoint.”

Australia’s Ms. Bishop warned “The Art of the Deal” author not to get carried away with his high-stakes North Korea gambit.

“North Korea has made these promises before …,” she said. “We want to see North Korea demonstrate that it’s genuine in its stated goal of denuclearizing.”

On yet another unorthodox Trump foreign policy move, the decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, Ms. Bishop declined to pick a fight.

“The action of the United States is a matter for the United States,” she said. “Australia has no plans to move our embassy from Tel Aviv, and most other countries are remaining in Tel Aviv.”

Individual issues aside, the common theme stressed by many of America’s closest allies is that they have learned to deal with a U.S. foreign policy that, under Mr. Trump, may be less predictable — and more challenging — but will not override what the NetherlandsMr. Blok called the “highly valued relationship [of] very like-minded countries.”

“Our deep bilateral relationship transcends changes in administration, changes in government,” Ms. Bishop seconded. “We of course consider the United States our most important strategic ally, and that will certainly continue to be the case.”

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