It’s been only nine days since Donald Trump won the presidential election, but much of the world is acting like he’s already in charge.
Russia is doubling down on its military offensives in Syria, where dictator Bashar Assad says Trump could be a “natural ally.” Mexico has unveiled an 11-point plan to protect its citizens in the United States. China is touting a new trade bloc in which it will dominate instead of the United States. And the Islamic State terrorist group is stepping up recruiting of jihadists eager to defy a U.S. president-elect whom one fighter described as a “complete maniac.”
As the world moves faster, it may seem normal that foreign interests are willing to look past Barack Obama, the sitting president, and adjust to deal with what they believe his successor will do. And, historically speaking, the transition period has often been a time of tumult in world, as well as domestic, affairs. It was in the presidential transition period between 1860 and 1861 that the U.S. unraveled into the Union and the Confederacy, the so-called Secession Winter.
But Trump’s looming ascension to the White House is unusually unsettling for the rest of the world for two main reasons: The Republican real estate mogul appears ready to take American foreign policy in a radically different direction than even many in his own party want; and yet he’s so inconsistent that no one really knows what he’ll actually do.
So some are preparing for the worst.
“As in any other moment of political change, nobody has full control as to what will occur,” José Paulo Carreño King, Mexico’s undersecretary for North America, told POLITICO. “However, we can decide how to respond.”
A national security adviser to the Trump team said his transition planners are aware of the potential instability that could arise in these few months. That’s one reason they are making sure he’s connecting with world leaders well before taking the oath of office on Jan. 20
“North Korea, China, they look at the American election cycle. They take advantage of election seasons,” said the adviser, who declined to be named in order to speak candidly. “What we have to be aware of is, because the president-elect is an unknown quantity to much of the world, this is a particularly delicate time.”
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was scheduled on Thursday to become the first foreign leader to meet face-to-face with Trump since the Nov. 8 election. Abe will likely press Trump for clarity on his view of the U.S.-Japan trade and security partnership. Trump is hostile toward trade deals and has suggested Japan should get its own nuclear weapons rather than rely on America’s security umbrella, alarming Tokyo.
Trump’s opposition to the massive Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, which was championed by Obama, has essentially killed that agreement. But in a sign of how quickly Asian countries are adjusting, China is expected to use this week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru to push a regional trade pact in which — unlike the TPP — it will play a role but the U.S. won’t. And Abe has already said the China-dominated deal will likely become the preferred pact if Trump abandons the TPP as he’s promised.
Trump’s White House victory appears to have emboldened Russia perhaps more than any other U.S. rival, not least because Trump has consistently advocated taking a softer approach toward Moscow than even many Republicans want.
Trump spoke with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday; the next day, Russia launched a new offensive in Syria, where it is providing air support to Assad’s troops as they fight U.S.-supported rebels. The Syrian strongman, meanwhile, told Portugese media that Trump could be a “natural ally, together with the Russians, Iranians,” if he fights terrorists. The wrinkle here is that Assad defines pretty much any rebel group that opposes him as a terrorist faction.
The escalating fighting in the Arab state suggests that “Russia may want to ‘finish up’ in Syria so as to present Trump with a fait accompli in January, and then pave the way for an improvement in U.S.-Russia relations,” said Nikolas Gvosdev, a professor of national security studies at the U.S. Naval War College.
Also this week, Russia announced it was dropping its support for the International Criminal Court, a move that followed a U.N. panel’s condemnation of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Russia also would like Trump to drop U.S. support for American and European sanctions against Moscow over its actions in Ukraine, and the kind words exchanged between Putin and Trump so far suggest the Russians might get their wish.
During an appearance alongside German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Thursday, Obama urged Trump to stand up for U.S. values by not ignoring Russia’s transgressions, especially in Syria.
“I don’t expect that the president-elect will follow exactly our approach, but my hope is he does not simply take a realpolitik approach and suggest that, you know, if we just cut some deals with Russia, even if it hurts people or even if it violates international norms or even if it leaves smaller countries vulnerable, or creates long-term problems in regions like Syria, that we just do whatever’s convenient at the time,” Obama said.
Much of Europe is alarmed over what Trump’s presidency could augur.
Foreign Policy reported that European delegates met this week with a Trump aide to beseech the president-elect to remain committed to NATO, whose financial underpinnings Trump has questioned, stand with Eastern Europe against an assertive Russia, and also commit to keeping intact the Iran nuclear deal. Merkel and Obama also co-wrote an op-ed aimed at persuading Trump to remain committed to a trans-Atlantic trade pact.
Few countries have as much to lose under a Trump administration as Mexico, a nation Trump has repeatedly belittled. Mexico is worried about the North American Free Trade Agreement, which Trump says he wants to renegotiate. But the Mexican government’s immediate priority appears to be reassuring Mexicans in the United States that it will stand up for them following Trump’s promises of mass deportation programs and the construction of a massive border wall to keep out undocumented migrants.
The 11-point plan unveiled Wednesday by the Mexican government includes the activation of a 24-hour, 1-800 line to help Mexican nationals in the United States with questions about immigration laws. It also includes a promise by the Mexican government to “strengthen our relationship with civil rights organizations.”
“In Mexico, we will respond in a strategic way and safeguard our national interest,” Carreño told POLITICO. “Moreover, Mexicans’ rights in the U.S. will always be our top priority.”
If there’s one foreign policy issue Trump has been consistent on it’s his desire to battle terrorist groups. He’s promised to “bomb the hell out of” the Islamic State. But he’s also been evasive about his exact plans, saying he doesn’t want to give away secrets to the enemy. The Obama administration is already leading an international coalition battling the terrorist network in Iraq and Syria, raining bombs down on the group on a regular basis.
Trump’s harsh rhetoric, especially language that some deem Islamophobic and a past call to ban Muslims from entering the United States, has been welcomed by the Islamic State as a handy recruiting tool. The group, which has factions across the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia, expects he’ll continue to serve that function.
“This guy is a complete maniac. His utter hate towards Muslims will make our job much easier because we can recruit thousands,” Abu Omar Khorasani, one of the terror network’s commanders in Afghanistan, recently told Reuters.
Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, said that, even as there is plenty of planning for worst-case scenarios, many countries are still trying to understand the contradictory puzzle that is Trump.
“Most are in a wait-and-see attitude, waiting for personnel announcements first of all, to get some indication of where a Trump administration will be heading abroad,” Daalder said. Some, he added, are “clinging to the hope that governing reality will triumph over campaign rhetoric.”
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