Trump's foreign policy faux pas: Nepal mispronounced as "nipple," Bhutan as "button": report

A new report provides a number of juicy tidbits about Trump's various gaffes when dealing with foreign leaders

By Matthew Rozsa
Published August 13, 2018 5:19PM (EDT)
 (Getty/Alex Wong)
(Getty/Alex Wong)

A new report suggests that President Donald Trump may have appeared like a bumbling fool on the international stage because of his complete lack of foreign policy experience — on more than one occasion.

A piece by Politico published on Monday contained a number of juicy reports regarding Trump's supposed stumbling over the correct pronunciation of several nations, his impulse to call other world leaders at inopportune hours and his general inability to avoid creating unnecessary international tension.

Let's start with the issue of other countries' names:

In one case, Trump, while studying a briefer’s map of South Asia ahead of a 2017 meeting with India’s prime minister, mispronounced Nepal as “nipple” and laughingly referred to Bhutan as “button,” according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Politico also reported that Trump's ignorance of the nations on the Asian subcontinent involved more than just their names. One person present at the same meeting when Trump reportedly mangled the pronunciations of Nepal and Bhutan commented that, "He didn’t know what those were. He thought it was all part of India.”

The person familiar with the meeting said of the president: “He was like, ‘What is this stuff in between and these other countries?’"

There was also this incident:

Meeting with a group of African countries at the United Nations General Assembly last September, Trump, in public remarks, referred to the country of Namibia as “Nambia.” (Trump did impress some of his own aides in the meeting, however. “He did a very good job of saying Côte d'Ivoire,” said one.)

Trump also reportedly struggles with understanding the concept of time zones, as he and his aides would frequently struggle over whether he should call foreign leaders at times that were convenient for Trump but decidedly less so (such as being during the early AM hours) for the executive counterpart in question.

“He wasn’t great with recognizing that the leader of a country might be 80 or 85 years old and isn’t going to be awake or in the right place at 10:30 or 11 p.m. their time,” said a former Trump NSC official. “When he wants to call someone, he wants to call someone. He’s more impulsive that way. He doesn’t think about what time it is or who it is,” added a person close to Trump.

In the case of Abe and others, Trump’s NSC staffers would advise him, for instance, that “the time is messed up, it’s 1 o’clock in the morning” and promise to put the call on his calendar for a more diplomatically appropriate time. Former national security adviser H.R. McMaster would assure him: “We can try to set it up.”

While these incidents were potentially embarrassing, the more serious faux pas were those that could have actually raised tensions between either America and other countries or between two nations even though the United States is not directly involved in their conflict.

READ MORE: Exclusive: Trump-endorsed radio show has promoted ex-CIA agent's call for right-wing rebellion

For an example of the former, check out this comment in which Trump unintentionally reminded the leaders of some African nations about the specter of Western colonialism.

Trump also raised eyebrows during the same gathering when he announced that “I have so many friends going to your countries, trying to get rich. I congratulate you” — prompting cringes among some aides aware how such talk would resonate on a continent that well remembers the exploitations of its colonial era. (Some African entrepreneurs said they appreciated the comment.)

And there was also this occasion when Trump stepped on a nerve in China-Japanese bilateral relations.

Trump at times also betrays an ignorance of regional history and rivalries. During a meeting with Abe at Mar-a-Lago in April, Trump repeatedly praised Chinese President Xi Jinping, according to a former NSC official from a prior administration.

“Everyone was cringing because Japan and China are rivals, and the Japanese and the Chinese are nervous about the president tilting too far towards the other side,” that person said. A White House official said Trump explained to Abe that his relationship with Xi would be useful in dealing with North Korea and insisted it “wasn’t considered a negative” by the Japanese side.

As the Post article noted, these aren't the first times that Trump has been reported to have embarrassed himself on the international stage. Other occasions include using an Indian accent when talking about Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, walking in front of Queen Elizabeth II during his visit to the United Kingdom and referring to Haiti and the nations of Africa as "shithole countries."

The real question is, how much of this ought to be taken seriously?

If one is inclined to be fair to Trump, it is perhaps not as big of a deal when he innocently mispronounces a name like "Bhutan" or "Namibia." As one White House official told Politico, Trump will sometimes avoid saying words, names or phrases that he is worried about mispronouncing, and it is the kind of error that even some of the best-informed and best-educated presidents in the world have made. Certainly, if no disrespect was intended and none was taken, those matters can be chalked up as ordinary faux pas.

The same thing cannot be said, however, about the occasions when Trump is irresponsible (such as praising China in front of Japan's prime minister or using colonialist language when speaking to the nations of Africa) or deliberately offensive (such as referring to certain nations as "shithole countries" or mocking the accent of a foreign leader). These are precisely the types of mistakes that a president with actual foreign policy experience would have been trained to avoid; they contribute precisely nothing positive to our country and risk creating international turmoil that is not only unnecessary but entirely avoidable.

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Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Bhutan China Donald Trump Japan Namibia Nepal Shinzo Abe Xi Jinping