ONE question about Donald Trump obsesses foreign governments more than any other: will this president, who campaigned as an “America First” insurgent, continue to trample norms in office? Strikingly often, foes and friends answer this in different ways.

Such hostile or rival powers as China, Russia or Iran increasingly find that Mr Trump’s policies resemble those pursued by his predecessors. Candidate Trump called China a trade cheat, bent on “rape” of the American economy. President Trump now calls that country’s leader, Xi Jinping, a “highly respected” and indispensable partner in efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions—a position not far from that adopted by Barack Obama, and George W. Bush before him. Trump aides no longer talk about a grand bargain with Russia, offering President Vladimir Putin a free hand in Ukraine in exchange for iron-fisted support in the fight against Islamic State: a loud advocate for such a deal, Michael Flynn, the president’s first national security adviser, was fired for lying about contacts with Russian envoys. Nor has Mr Trump torn up an Obama-era deal to freeze Iran’s nuclear programme, although he calls it a “disaster”. Instead he seems minded to buttress it with sanctions targeting Iranian misconduct in other fields: a policy that Hillary Clinton favoured.

Often, Mr Trump’s worldview has not so much evolved as collided with reality. That process is welcomed in such friendly capitals as Berlin, which Lexington visited last week. Yet maintaining amicable ties with this president still feels anything but straightforward. Official Berlin is glad that Mr Trump takes a more conventional view of America’s interests than it once feared. There is less confidence that he respects the values underpinning the rules-based, Western-led international order. Germans are dismayed by Mr Trump’s tolerance for authoritarian strongmen, from the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte (whose blood-soaked campaign against drug-dealers earned him Mr Trump’s praise on April 29th and a White House invitation). The mood in official Berlin is best described as relief mixed with real sadness.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, prepared meticulously for her first meeting with Mr Trump on March 17th. Mrs Merkel has spent a career handling swaggering men, from German political rivals to Mr Putin. Her aim was not to befriend Mr Trump, who as a candidate called her refugee policies “insane”, but to suggest where he might be misjudging America’s interests. Team Merkel knew that Peter Navarro, a senior White House trade adviser, holds that Germany’s success as an exporter to America is explained by manipulation of the European single currency and by cunning Teutonic negotiators who outsmarted Mr Obama and previous presidents. Mr Trump favours bilateral trade pacts, believing that America suffers when many countries cram into one negotiating room. Mrs Merkel duly explained that Germany does not negotiate trade pacts or control its currency, ceding authority on both fronts to the European Union. If Mr Trump wants trade talks with just two players, it is the EU that offers that opportunity, Mrs Merkel told him.

Trump aides have warned that their boss does not respond well to detail-heavy briefings, preferring stirring stories, pictures and maps. Mrs Merkel brought a group of company bosses and apprentices to talk about vocational education. Turning to the agenda of a G20 summit to be held in July, she engaged Mr Trump and his daughter, Ivanka, on the dire risks posed by global pandemics and antibiotic resistance. Mrs Merkel invited Ms Trump to speak at a women’s summit in Berlin. (That visit saw the First Daughter hissed by some in the audience when she called her father a champion for families.)

In common with other foreign visitors to the Trump White House, Mrs Merkel found the president a good listener, perhaps because much of what he was hearing seemed new to him. Allies have begun taking advantage of this trait, conferring before visits to reinforce such messages as the need to negotiate with Russia warily and from a position of strength. Surprisingly wonky subjects pique Mr Trump’s interest: the Danish prime minister, Lars Lokke Rasmussen, told him how wind power has helped Denmark reduce its carbon emissions while strengthening its economy. Allies have begun giving much thought to crafting policy wins that Mr Trump can call his own.

When a president does not think America exceptional

Still, public antipathy towards Mr Trump runs deep, which raises the costs of doing business with him. Mrs Merkel, for instance, saw the case for increased German defence spending long before Mr Trump demanded that her government pay what he claimed it “owes” to America in NATO contributions. As soon as Mr Trump made defence spending sound so personal, selling an increase to Germans became harder. Perceptions will be hard to change. As Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign-affairs committee of the German parliament and a member of Mrs Merkel’s Christian Democratic Party, laments, “Even if Donald Trump turns back to a more normal foreign policy, he will remain a provocative figure in German eyes.” A Social Democrat on that committee, Dagmar Freitag, is unsure that Germany and Mr Trump “share common values”, making relations “more fragile”.

German leftists who dislike or distrust America face a different puzzle, notes Boris Vormann of the Free University in Berlin. Such sceptics have traditionally raged at the hypocrisy of American claims to moral superiority. Mr Trump makes no such claims, leaving anti-Americans oddly bereft, too.

Even Mr Trump’s mercurial nature plays differently with friends and foes. It can be helpful to surprise adversaries. Unpredictability is harder for friends to love. But allies know now that Mr Trump is not about to change—nor sees why he should.