Alarmed by Donald Trump’s grip on the Republican presidential nomination, world leaders are wrestling with the possibility that, even if he loses the general election, his ascent reflects a strain of American public opinion that could profoundly reshape the way the United States addresses security alliances and trade.
From Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul to the headquarters of NATO in Brussels and the vulnerable Baltic nations along Russia’s western border, officials and analysts said in interviews that they saw the success of Trump’s “America first” platform as a harbinger of pressure for allies to pay up or make trade concessions in return for military protection.
In many capitals, Trump’s formal and off-the-cuff foreign policy proposals — his threat to pull out of NATO; his musings about removing the United States’ nuclear umbrella over Japan and South Korea; his pledge to slap huge trade tariffs on China — are regarded with a mix of alarm and confusion. Asked on Thursday if Beijing was concerned about the prospect of a Trump presidency, the Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, replied, “We hope the U.S. people from all walks of life would view bilateral relations from a reasonable and objective perspective.”
Stefano Stefanini, a former representative of Italy to NATO and former diplomatic adviser to the Italian president, put it this way: “There is no Donald Trump contingency plan.”
“The mistake that Europe might make is to think the Trump phenomenon might just fade away,” Stefanini said. “The sentiments that Donald Trump is expressing will certainly influence the next administration or the next Congress.”
Officials do not see Trump’s rise as merely an American version of the anti-immigration and isolationist parties that have picked up support across Europe. They are finding signs of tangible political change in statements by Democratic leaders, as well.
Already, Trump’s assertive positions about U.S. interests have led some officials to look again at President Barack Obama’s recent critique of European and Persian Gulf allies as “free riders.” They have also helped shed light abroad on the domestic political forces at play around Hillary Clinton’s decision to renounce her support for a new Asian trade deal.
Some, too, are revisiting the words of Robert M. Gates in his last weeks as defense secretary in 2011. Gates warned that a new generation of Americans with no memory of the Cold War would eventually ask whether NATO, the central institution of European security, was an artifact, like the single segment of the Berlin Wall that remains standing as a reminder of the past.
In Europe last month, Obama pressed allies to live up to commitments to spend 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense, a benchmark that few have hit.
“Some of the claims made during the campaign have been empty or just wrong,” said Peter Westmacott, a former British ambassador to the United States, where he was regarded as one of the savviest analysts of U.S.-European relations. “There is no ‘better Iran nuclear deal,’ and not many people think it is a good idea for South Korea or Japan to acquire nuclear weapons.”
“But others should give us Europeans pause for thought,” Westmacott said. “NATO members need to reflect on whether it’s right, or sustainable, for the U.S. to pay over 70 percent of the bill for our collective security, or how to ensure we take care of the losers as well as the winners in global free trade.”
Clearly, many European policymakers were already upset with Obama’s reluctance to intervene on their behalf in conflicts where they have national interests, and with his demand that European nations put what he called, in an interview with The Atlantic, more “skin in the game.” Europeans cite the United States’ reluctance to take the lead in ousting Moammar Gadhafi from Libya, an operation that revealed major flaws in NATO operations. And they are unconvinced by Obama’s insistence that he made the right decision in backing away from the “red line” he had drawn over the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad of Syria.
“Overall, I would say there are too many signs of American retrenchment and retreat,” said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former prime minister of Denmark who was NATO secretary-general until 2014. Europeans, he said, would generally prefer a U.S. president “who will demonstrate determined American leadership,” even as, to many analysts, Trump’s rise suggests pressure for the nation to turn inward.
Rasmussen said he saw Trump’s demands on NATO as an acceleration of the Obama administration’s effort to encourage more burden sharing. But they come with an isolationist twist, he said. The “America first” term, embraced by Trump in a recent interview with The New York Times, goes back to a movement led by Charles A. Lindbergh in the 1930s to keep America out of war in Europe.
The European reaction to the revival of that term has been so sharp that U.S. military leaders, while reluctant to get involved in the campaign, have tried to take on Trump’s arguments.
Gen. Philip M. Breedlove, who just stepped down as the supreme allied commander for Europe, wrote in The Washington Post this week that when he assumed his position in 2013, he thought that arguments about NATO’s utility were “without merit, and there was no need to engage.” Now, he said, without naming Trump, he felt compelled “to explain to my fellow countrymen why the United States absolutely needs NATO — a NATO that is strong, resilient and united.”
Five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff made a similar set of arguments at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York on Tuesday, also avoiding any mention of Trump’s name.
But to many who live on Russia’s raw border, especially in the Baltic nations in Moscow’s shadow, there is nothing more puzzling than Trump’s reluctance to criticize President Vladimir Putin. He has often spoken admiringly of Putin, saying he respects his strength and views him as someone with whom he can negotiate. To European ears, that sounds as if Trump may be playing into Putin’s hands, opening a rift within NATO.