President Trump leaves Thursday for the G-20 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with a packed schedule ahead of him and a number of looming questions that could determine whether the trip is a success or a mess.
Traditionally these big international meetings have culminated with a communique, agreed to by all or most of the nations in attendance. But Trump isn't a fan of multilateral, well, anything. So, his emphasis will be on a series of bilateral meetings taking place on the sidelines of the gathering.
His dance card is still in flux, but the White House says the president plans to meet with the leaders of Argentina, South Korea, Turkey, Japan, Germany, India and Russia. And Trump will close out the trip with a working dinner with China's President Xi Jinping.
Meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Xi would get the most attention and raise the greatest uncertainty.
Deal or no deal?
When Trump sits down for dinner with Xi, trade will be on the menu. The United States and China are in the midst of a trade fight that is scheduled to escalate Jan. 1. That's when the 10 percent tariffs the Trump administration imposed on Chinese goods are set to amp up to 25 percent. And if that were to happen, China would inevitably retaliate, as it already has for earlier U.S. tariff announcements.
White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow told reporters President Trump is optimistic. "In his view, there's a good possibility that a deal can be made, and that he is open to that," Kudlow said. "He is open to that. But having said that — some caveats, as always — certain conditions have to be met with respect to fairness."
Major sticking points include intellectual property theft, forced technology transfers, tariffs and other barriers to free and fair trade.
Trump and Xi have a good rapport, but it's not clear that will be nearly enough to resolve the escalating trade tensions. National security adviser John Bolton sought to temper expectations of a major breakthrough. He says the idea is that it's always good to get the two leaders together to exchange views, but there's not an expectation that "at this meeting, there'll be some substantial agreement coming out of it, but that there would be an indication, a kind of way ahead that the advisers could then pursue."
Outside observers see several possible scenarios for the Trump-Xi meeting:
- A big deal. "I would put that as a small chance because I don't think there's been enough homework to lay the foundation, and I think some of the issues the Chinese have indicated they're really not willing to move on," said David Dollar, a China trade expert at the Brookings Institution.
- Some kind of announced agreement of the nature Bolton described. Dollar says he thinks this scenario is quite plausible. "I think it's in President Trump's interest to have this meeting be viewed as a success. The markets are looking for some kind of dialing down of the rhetoric, and in particular markets are hoping there will not be an escalation of U.S. tariffs on Jan. 1," Dollar said.
This would likely include China agreeing to buy more from the U.S., perhaps liquefied natural gas, and some general language about opening markets or working to resolve conflicts over intellectual property. This is the kind of "deal" that is far from done and could fall apart, but not until well after the initial positive headlines.
- No deal. It's possible China won't come offering something Trump is willing to accept, or the dinner otherwise goes south. "I think markets would react quite negatively to that, but they'd be looking at tariffs rising to 25 percent on Jan. 1," said Dollar, adding it's "really hard to see an exit ramp, no real opportunity to get off of that trade war situation over the next couple of months."
As Dollar puts it, "The key issue is, is President Trump willing to take a practical compromise?"
Will Trump actually meet with Putin, and how will it go?
The last time Trump met at length with Russian President Vladimir Putin was over the summer at a summit in Helsinki, Finland. At a joint press conference at the end of the meeting, Trump deferred to Putin's denials of election interference and questioned U.S. intelligence. Putin came away grinning, and even Trump's supporters in Congress criticized his performance.
This new meeting comes as Russian aggression toward Ukraine recently intensified. Over the weekend, Russian vessels reportedly fired on Ukrainian ships in the Black Sea, seizing three vessels and injuring Ukrainian sailors.
U.S. officials all the way up to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo strongly condemned the Russian action, and in an interview with The Washington Post, President Trump said he was even considering pulling out of the Putin meeting in Argentina as a result. "Maybe I won't have the meeting," Trump said. "Maybe I won't even have the meeting. We're going to see."
"I don't like that aggression," Trump said in his Post interview. "I don't want that aggression at all."
For his part, Putin has blamed Ukraine for the incident, accusing the Ukrainian president of orchestrating the whole thing for political gain.
As of now, the Trump-Putin meeting is still on.
If it does happen, one open question is whether Trump will confront Putin on Russia's provocative actions against Ukraine or defer to his denials, once again.
But what about the allies?
Trump has been a major X factor at recent international gatherings, rebelling against the consensus or lecturing fellow world leaders about doing their part on trade or mutual defense.
Early in his administration, leaders of traditional U.S. ally nations like French President Emmanuel Macron worked to charm Trump into seeing things their way. But the charm offensive seems to have ended, having failed to keep Trump in the Paris Climate Accord or the Iran nuclear deal, and with Trump imposing trade tariffs and threatening more.
"They will be expecting some instability because of the wild card factor that's at play," said Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institution. Whereas in the past a lot of effort was put into crafting a communique nations could agree to, "I think they put a lot of time now into trying to minimize the damage from the summit."
In a letter to G-20 leaders setting the table for the meeting, United Nations Secretary General António Guterres laid out a series of challenges to be addressed, including climate change.
"More, rather than less, cooperation is needed," he wrote. "We must preserve and renew multilateralism to redirect globalization towards sustainable development for all."
That reads like a near direct contradiction of Trump's "America First" approach to foreign policy.