Trump vs. World, the Sequel

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In the middle of a devastating pandemic, recurring nationwide protests and a bitter presidential election—not to mention the president’s own Covid-19 diagnosis—Americans can be forgiven for losing track of what Donald Trump’s presidency has meant beyond their borders. But the list of changes he has wrought abroad is not short.

A world order designed to function through slow consensus and underwhelming compromise, on a good day, has had virtually no coping mechanism for the American president’s disruption. In the name of putting America first, Trump has pulled out of one global deal after another, unpredictably reversing course on some of America’s biggest global priorities and moral commitments. He has snubbed democratic leaders and longtime allies while cozying up to Vladimir Putin and other autocrats. While the most important Western institutions—NATO, the European Union, the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, the World Health Organization—are still standing, it’s an open question whether they will be able to survive another four years of pummeling and disinvestment by the world’s superpower.

So, what really happens if the world gets a second Trump term? Over the past few months, POLITICO reporters in the United States and Europe spoke to experts and decision-makers around the world about what they expect to happen on issues ranging from defense to trade, public health to climate, if Trump is reelected.

Some of the outlook is unsettling: Trump is already undertaking a nuclear buildup and seems set on dismantling the one remaining treaty between the world’s two main nuclear powers. And there is a real fear that a second Trump term would embolden the authoritarians around the world who have lined up to support him. Not all of his bluster translates into impact—corporations are largely navigating his trade wars, and global climate policy is working around Washington for now—but his abandonment of the international arena is almost certain to have big downstream effects as China rises to fill the gap.

“Whoever occupies the Oval Office from January has to appreciate that America’s alliance network is its greatest comparative advantage over China,” says former NATO Secretary General and Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Trump is deliberately letting that network wither.

While the Trump administration notched a win for Middle East stability this year by securing deals between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, the world as a whole has not responded well to his presidency. In a recent Pew survey of 13 democracies, confidence in his leadership on world affairs ranged from 9 percent in Belgium to a high of 25 percent in Japan. Trump is the least trusted of all major world leaders; even among supporters of Europe’s far right parties, his approval never rises above 45 percent.

This means “America First” has huge and mounting costs for America: Increasingly, it is losing the ability to rely on the easy cooperation of old allies, and the global respect that fuels U.S. soft power has almost vanished, thanks to the country’s runaway coronavirus death toll. Among 53 countries surveyed in June by the nonprofit Alliance of Democracies, only Americans and respondents from one other country (Japan) said they thought the United States had handled the coronavirus better than China.

Some international observers also fear for the state of America’s own democracy, seeing in the United States the tell-tale signs of backsliding that Hungary, Poland and Brazil have experienced in recent years. “The U.S. can go down a lot further, even if people think it’s already intense,” says Marietje Schaake, a liberal former member of the European Parliament who is now the international policy director at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center.

America, in other words, soon could find itself in the company of a whole different set of countries. Whether it gets there depends on what the next four years look like. Here’s what the world should expect if Trump remains commander in chief.

The climate crisis is a slow-moving disaster that hinges on single pivotal moments. Right now, the global community is planning around the year 2050, when experts say humans need to all but eliminate greenhouse-gas emissions to avoid the worst effects of global warming. But the biggest dates on the immediate calendar are Nov. 3 and Nov. 4.

Reelecting Donald Trump on Nov. 3 would put America, and possibly other countries, on a new and hard-to-reverse course away from that emissions goal. And thanks to a recent bold promise by China, it could leave the United States isolated as other powers start to rewrite the rules of the global carbon economy.

In his first term, Trump repealed the Obama administration’s signature climate policy, the Clean Power Plan, and rolled back a host of other environmental rules. Trump also pulled the United States out of the Paris Agreement, the global climate pact aimed at that 2050 goal. But so far, those decisions have had fewer real-world effects than Trump might have imagined. Despite his promise to bring back Big Coal, the American economy has slowly been shifting away from fossil fuels. The majority of the 100-plus domestic environmental regulations he rolled back remain in limbo, after successful challenges by states and green groups, according to an analysis by the Institute for Policy Integrity. And thanks to devices deliberately implanted in the agreement to make it hard to leave, his abandonment of the Paris deal is still not official.

That pullout will be final on Nov. 4, the day after the election.

A second Trump term would likely have a far bigger impact than the first, both domestically and abroad. The president would have more time to defend his deregulatory agenda in court, which could lock in rules that allow more pollution from power plants, leaking oil and gas wells, cars and refrigerants—potentially increasing emissions by at least 3 percent within the next 15 years.

After four years of Donald Trump arguing with allies more often than confronting adversaries, many diplomatic and military officials fear that, should he be reelected in November, the U.S. president will kill NATO altogether. Those worries are almost certainly overblown.

The far more likely threat is that Trump would remain as NATO’s most influential leader, sowing uncertainty and chaos from within. “It is likely he would persist in disrupting, both politically and militarily,” says retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute, who was U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2013 to 2017 and is now chief executive of Cambridge Global, a strategic consulting firm.

Claiming credit for forcing European allies to increase their military spending is now one of Trump’s favorite talking points. And with NATO enjoying broad bilateral support in Congress, chances of a U.S. pullout are remote. But a second Trump term could still weaken NATO’s security posture and undermine the alliance’s strategic and political credibility in myriad ways.

Most immediately, it would require the Pentagon to implement a major drawdown of U.S. forces in Germany, which many military officials think is a bad idea—more of an effort to punish German Chancellor Angela Merkel than a useful redeployment. “His announced intention to remove U.S. forces from Europe would become reality, thereby demonstrating withdrawal of U.S. commitment and reducing NATO’s deterrence posture,” Lute says.

Trump’s continuing soft approach toward Russian President Vladimir Putin also stands to weaken the alliance. “The trouble with NATO is that he doesn’t need formally to leave it, which Congress wouldn’t let him anyway,” says Radosław Sikorski, a former Polish defense minister and longtime foreign minister. “For NATO to work, we as allies, we need to have confidence that he would stand up to a potential enemy in an emergency,” Sikorski adds. “And in that sense, he can destroy NATO with one tweet.”

On an existential global threat that often feels like a back-burner issue in U.S. politics, Donald Trump has quietly moved America into much riskier territory—and faces a decision point before February that has nuclear experts of both parties worried.

After decades in which the United States and Russia have kept the nuclear threat in check with a series of treaties, negotiated and enforced by presidents of both parties, Trump has already changed course significantly in his first term. He pulled out of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty with Russia, citing Moscow’s violations but not making any attempt to renegotiate it. He withdrew from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty, which was signed by nearly three dozen nations, including Russia, allowing overflights of military facilities to promote transparency. And Trump withdrew from a 2015 multinational nuclear deal designed to rein in Iran’s illegal weapons development.

At this point, just one important nuclear treaty remains in place: the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, or New START, a deal between the United States and Russia that limits each side to a fixed number of deployed nuclear weapons—setting an important cap on what amounts to 90 percent of the world’s nuclear weapons. It expires in February.

Moscow has already offered to extend it without preconditions the full five years the treaty permits. Trump’s advisers are negotiating but insist that an extension of any length must come with a formal commitment to negotiate a replacement treaty that covers more classes of Russian weapons. They also want Russia to help persuade China to join a new treaty that limits its comparatively small but growing arsenal. Many see that requirement as a “poison pill” designed to blame the Russians and the Chinese when the deal inevitably collapses.

When they look ahead to Nov. 3, analysts of the U.S.-China relationship mostly debate who’s tougher on Beijing; whether Joe Biden’s toughness-via-multilateral-institutions outstrips Donald Trump’s toughness-via-diktat-and-shots-from-the-hip.

Far more consequential is what the 2020 election means for America’s own ability to shape global events—its “comprehensive national power,” to borrow a Chinese term. As the United States argues with itself over whether and how to tie its shoelaces, China, and many Asian nations within its sphere of influence, are breaking into a sprint.

If you understand what’s happening between the United States and China right now, there’s far more at stake in the election than most Americans appreciate—and it affects the future of the entire planet. Americans tend to take it for granted that the United States is in a class by itself, uniquely influential in the world, both for its hard and soft power. But the rise of China, with a tech-forward economy and immense global ambition, as well as the rise of Asia around it, means that is no longer true. America is in a new contest of two giants, and its relative power is waning. America is not in danger of being surpassed; it is in the process of being surpassed, right now, by its only serious rival for the global throne.

Ironically, while Trump talks about China more than any recent president, a second term will almost guarantee that the United States shrinks from the great power contest that China is ready to wage, satisfying itself instead with superficially bold but ultimately less consequential measures. Need an example? Think of the Trump administration’s poorly conceived TikTok ban, instituted because of stated concerns over data sharing. It grabbed weeks of headlines; then a court put it on hold. Contrast that with a true data protection regime that vouchsafes every citizen’s dignity and privacy—Europe has one, and even the Chinese Communist Party is drafting one, though it won’t protect citizens from government intrusion. Washington has done nothing.

It’s hard to remember just how quiet a corner of policy trade was before Donald Trump arrived on the scene. What seemed like a glide path toward more global integration was sharply, loudly disrupted by his campaign and presidency. Trump stocked the White House with hawkish outliers, abruptly pulled out of the world’s largest trade deal and sharply pivoted American policy to an improvised protectionist approach, stiffly enforced by punitive tariffs.

No trade expert seriously expects Trump to deviate from his approach in a second term: China is the enemy, America comes first, tariffs are a tool and tensions are the new normal.

“Number one, and no question about it: This administration has changed the conversation, the approach, the outlook on China forever,” says Clete Willems, former deputy director of the National Economic Council in the Trump administration, who now advises multinational clients at a Washington law firm.

Not everyone agrees with Willems that it’s the right approach, but experts from across the political and policy spectrum agree that the genie won’t be easy to put back in the bottle—on trade with China or anywhere else. And this is where the next four years will matter.

Having renegotiated (and rebranded) NAFTA, Trump is now trying to lock in new treaties with a number of top trading partners. First up is the U.K., the fifth-largest export market for U.S. goods, which is leaving the EU; those talks are already underway. Trump also has promised new trade deals with other significant partners—like India and Brazil—though those haven’t progressed as far. If he succeeds, he’ll have engineered a series of one-on-one deals that firmly extract the United States from its former role as dean of the multilateral trade system.

When Donald Trump announced over the summer that the United States intended to withdraw from the World Health Organization, the rupture was over the global health body’s alleged failure to hold Beijing accountable in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. But if Trump wins a second term and continues America’s retrenchment from global health efforts, other powers—including, ironically, China—are expected to take steps to fill the vacuum.

And that retrenchment might have a bigger impact than Trump thinks, affecting “so many other multilateral things,” says Ilona Kickbusch, an external adviser to the WHO and founder of the Global Health Centre at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. “It’s a question of trust. It won’t just stay within the health arena,” Kickbusch says. As other countries take the lead on matters of global health, experts say, those nations will also be able to extend their geopolitical influence.

Trump is not alone in his frustration with the WHO; other countries similarly have argued that its leadership needs to be more transparent and take a harder line on China. But he is alone in deciding to pull out of the organization, a move that is on track to be finalized in July 2021.

Already, other countries are stepping forward. Over the summer, French and German diplomats abandoned talks at the G-7 about a U.S. plan to reform the WHO, arguing that Washington had no standing to overhaul an agency it was planning to leave. Instead, a Franco-German proposal, which calls for more funding and more authority for the organization in exchange for more transparency from its administration, is getting traction in Geneva, effectively giving Europe, rather than America, the mantle of leadership at the WHO.

When Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton in 2016, Russian politicians literally broke out champagne. If Trump wins again, much of the rest of the authoritarian world could join in. “If he’s reelected, we’re going to see an acceleration of what we’ve experienced over the past four years,” says Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee and a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s center-right Christian Democrats.

In both word and deed, Trump has made no secret of his fondness for some of the world’s most notorious strongmen. “It’s funny, the relationships I have,” Trump told Bob Woodward earlier this year. “The tougher and meaner they are, the better I get along with them.”

Trump’s bromance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin was apparent even before he moved into the White House; it became clear fairly early on in his presidency that he felt kinship with authoritarians of all stripes. One of the highlights of his early months as president was his first foreign visit, which took him to Saudi Arabia, where he enthusiastically participated in a traditional sword dance.

The reception he received there left a strong impression. When Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman faced international outcry (and outrage in the U.S. Congress) over an operation to murder and dismember Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an ardent critic of the regime, Trump stood up for his new friend the prince. “I saved his ass,” Trump went on to tell Woodward. Around the same time, Trump professed that he and North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, the leader of one of the most repressive regimes on the planet, had fallen “in love.”

As dramatic as some of these predictions might seem, Americans shouldn’t expect Joe Biden to immediately do a 180 on U.S. foreign policy if he’s elected.

Foreign governments generally accept that there’s relatively little policy space between Republicans and Democrats on trade these days: You might see fewer tariffs and language more amenable to allies under Biden, but there are no easy trade deals anymore. And the United States is in retreat regardless of who wins the election, lacking the political will and the resources to be what James Crabtree, a professor at the National University of Singapore, calls “an all-round, all-weather superpower.”

Trump might continue to accelerate the trend, and Biden’s rhetoric on a range of issues would be sharply different, but a President Biden would also be tied up in domestic crises, starting with Covid-19 management and recovery.

A continued retreat comes with risks for both America and the world, however. The EU is doing heavy lifting on climate change and forging an independent course on China relations. Russia and Turkey are asserting themselves across the Middle East and North Africa. A growing China continues its massive global infrastructure and financing programs, and the U.N. Security Council is, largely, an irrelevance.

Even if America doesn’t get another four years of Donald Trump, Trumpism will have made a lasting impact on the world.

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