There should be a rule in international diplomacy: No strange handshake rituals.
Why, you ask? I offer this as all the evidence you will ever need – from the ongoing Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Summit in the Philippines:
There’s so much happening here – all of it (or at least most of it) super awkward, with President Donald Trump right in the middle of it both literally and figuratively.
Let’s go left to the right in the photo.
* Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-O-Cha: He appears to be old hat at this sort of thing. No arm straining. Totally relaxed. Like’s he’s done the “ASEAN-Way handshake” – as this move is called – a thousand times before. That said, the look on his face definitely says, “I am only tolerating this. Don’t make the mistake of thinking I enjoy it.”
* Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev: The real hero of this photo. Medvedev has clearly been trained in the Vladimir Putin I-do-what-I-want-to-do-at-all-times school of international affairs. Medvedev is also smiling coolly, knowing that his decision not to play ball on the “ASEAN-Way handshake” was the right move.
* Vietnam Prime Minister Nguyễn Xuân Phúc: This is where things starts to go south. Phuc is all good on his right side – Medvedev for the win – but he’s having to deal with whatever Trump is doing to his left. The Phuc-Trump handshake is dicey, at best. (More on that below). Also, the Vietnamese Prime Minister is looking at the floor – a sure sign he is hoping the handshake ends 5 minutes ago.
* US President Donald Trump: Trump is really the straw that stirs the drink in the picture. Or, more accurately, the guy in the middle of the photo who doesn’t totally get how to do the handshake and is pulling everyone in the picture in weird ways as a result. On Trump’s left, he appears to have wedged Phuc’s entire hand between his index and middle fingers – and the grip is slipping. On his right, Trump is on the verge of meeting hands with Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. The look on Trump’s face is somewhere between “I am having fun?!” and “This is harder than it looks!.” Rest assured, however, the handshake was consummated – although with a bit of right arm straining by Trump. Here’s visual proof:
* Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte: Duterte is giving Trump the “come on man … what are we even doing out here, man” look as the US president tries to jockey his right arm into the correct position. Duterte also appears to have some very uncomfortable hand positioning with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to his left.
* Australia Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull: Turnbull, to his credit, is trying to make the mechanics of the Trump-Duterte handshake work with a bit of a side pivot toward the Philippine prime minister. Turnbull also has his feet a little too closer together, suggesting the possibility that a strong tug from Trump – never rule it out! – could topple him over.
* Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong: With Turnbull bearing most of the Trump pull, the Singaporean prime minister looks well balanced and happy. He’s also giving a “I can’t believe we do this handshake thing every year” look to someone in the crowd.