America’s allies and rivals face a tough choice as Donald Trump trails in polls ahead of November’s presidential election: Wait to see if he loses to presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden, or cut deals now to avoid negotiating with an emboldened second-term Trump.The president addressed that dilemma himself in a tweet celebrating the release of an American prisoner, Michael White, from Iran earlier this month.
"Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal,” Trump wrote. "I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!” The administration wielded the same warnings when pressing the World Health Organization during the COVID-19 pandemic for changes in order to get American funding flowing again, according to a person familiar with the discussions. The demand was the same, the person said: commit to reforms aimed at improving transparency and eradicating a perceived bias toward China, or expect to make more painful concessions if Trump is re-elected.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel may already have tasted the risks of snubbing the White House. Days after she refused Trump’s invitation to a Group of Seven summit he wanted to hold outside Washington this month, the administration announced plans to withdraw a quarter of U.S. troops currently stationed in Germany. Trump said he made that call because Germany still wasn’t on track to meet its commitment as a NATO member to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Merkel, meanwhile, attributed her refusal to come to the U.S. to the pandemic, saying it was too early for an in-person meeting like the one Trump proposed.
For the time being, countries appear to be holding off on deals with the Trump administration, or sticking to their guns in case a Biden administration softens the American stance. South Korea, for example, is still resisting U.S. demands to pay far more to host the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula, while several European countries are vowing to move ahead with plans to tax tech companies despite a U.S. threat to retaliate with tariffs.
"A lot of countries in Europe and Asia will hide behind COVID-19 and hit the pause button, saying it is too difficult to do business as usual,” says John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. With the pandemic unlikely to really wind down before October, that time-scale dovetails with the U.S. election.The Trump administration’s domestic response to the coronavirus and recent anti-racism protests may also see foreign capitals choose to wait.
Trump’s defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff both issued statements this month committing to protecting the U.S. Constitution, thinly veiled rebukes to the president’s ideas of assuming federal control to impose order by force.
The rare impression of a U.S. president at public odds with his armed forces was underscored when former military leaders, including Jim Mattis, his first Secretary of Defense, spoke out to condemn Trump more directly. The criticisms from Mattis have a special resonance abroad — until his resignation in 2019, he traveled widely to persuade allies that America’s institutions were strong enough to withstand Trump.
"All these events taken together will have raised a question as to whether it’s worth investing a lot more in the Trump presidency,” Chipman said.
China may be taking a similar wait-and-see approach, according to current and former officials. They say leaders in Beijing have calculated that a second Trump term would serve their interests, mostly because of the damage he’s done to U.S. alliances with other Western nations.
Trump has also made no secret of his desire for political favors, according to a forthcoming book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who writes that the president last year asked Chinese President Xi Jinping to buy more agricultural products to help him win votes in battleground states in the 2020 election.
Western governments have expressed concern at Trump’s preference for transactional rather than values-based alliances. The U.K. and Canada, for example, balked at Trump’s plan to invite Russian President Vladimir Putin to a deferred G7 meeting. The group kicked Russia out in 2014 to protest its annexation of Crimea, and Moscow’s interference in Ukraine has only intensified.
"Under this president, our handshake is devalued and our values are in tatters,” said Brett McGurk, the former U.S. special envoy to the coalition fighting Islamic State and now a frequent Trump critic. "That reservoir of soft power — the awesome intangible that Russia or China can never match — is being drained before the eyes of the world. "Administration officials appear sensitive to the risk they could find themselves treated as lame ducks. They’ve oriented much of their Iran strategy in recent months toward making it more difficult for all parties to the moribund 2015 nuclear deal to revive it should Biden win the White House.
Trump, meanwhile, is looking to boost ties with leaders skeptical of the European Union, such as Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who visits Washington this week. Meanwhile, U.S. special envoy for the Balkans Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist, has organized a meeting of the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo in Washington on June 27, sidelining the EU, which had been mediating in the search for a settlement. Tensions in the Balkans have risen as Serbia seeks to block international recognition of Kosovo’s independence, which the former province declared in 2008.
And by no means are all U.S. partners hesitant to work with Trump. Australia, another proposed G7 guest, was quick to accept his invitation. Australia and Japan strongly support Trump’s stance on containing China, his planned focus for the summit and a rationale for including Russia.
The U.S. in any case remains too powerful to ignore entirely. One European diplomat in Washington said many capitals learned a lesson by betting on Hillary Clinton in 2016, when the prevailing consensus was she would win the presidency. They may also be coming to a more sweeping conclusion: That massive swings in U.S. policy are here to stay, meaning allies will need to rely less on Washington, no matter who wins in November.
That’s put a renewed focus on approaching thorny foreign-policy problems from the perspective of pure national interest, rather than as a unified alliance, the diplomat said. Otherwise, the risk of being blindsided by the U.S. is too great.
Biden, for example, has pledged to undo Trump policies that were themselves drastic reversals. The former vice president says he’d re-enter the Paris climate agreement on the first day of his administration and review all U.S. tariffs and sanctions imposed under Trump. If Iran were to recommit to its obligations under the nuclear accord the U.S. would "strengthen and extend” the agreement, according to Biden’s campaign website.
U.S. unpredictability has been on full display in the global battle against the coronavirus, with the nation giving other countries no warning about its decision to defund the WHO — the latest in a string of international treaties and organizations that Trump has either left or undermined since coming to office.
It was clear, too, in the way Trump punished China over its actions in Hong Kong. He stripped the city of some of its privileged trade status without first tipping off even the U.K., Hong Kong’s former colonial overseer and arguably America’s closest ally.
America’s alliance network, based on a core of defense commitments with 34 nations, is not yet doomed, according to Mira Rapp-Hooper, whose book "Shields of the Republic: The Triumphs and Perils of America’s Alliance” was published this month. "The reason I remain somewhat optimistic is that the cost of doing foreign policy without the U.S. would be much more expensive for any one of our allies” as well as for the U.S. itself, she said.
Yet that optimism may fade with a second Trump term. Asked if Trump Mark-II might be able to replace the postwar architecture alliances with a new, more ad hoc and interest-based network of international relationships, she was skeptical. Said Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations: "I don’t see the U.S. as a credible builder of a new world order.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.