US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE
US President Donald Trump. Picture: REUTERS/KEVIN LAMARQUE

London/Washington — 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 in June.

“Don’t wait until after US 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 Organisation (WHO) during the global Covid-19 pandemic for changes to get US 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 towards 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 (G70 summit he wanted to hold outside Washington in June, the administration announced plans to withdraw a quarter of US troops stationed in Germany.

Trump said he made that call because Germany still was not on track to meet its commitment as a North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (Nato) member to spend 2% of GDP on defence by 2024. Merkel, meanwhile, attributed her refusal to come to the US 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 US stance. South Korea, for example, is still resisting US demands to pay far more to host the 28,000 US troops stationed on the peninsula, while several European countries are vowing to move ahead with plans to tax tech companies despite a US threat to retaliate with tariffs.

‘Pause button’

“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 timescale dovetails with the US election.

The Trump administration’s domestic response to the coronavirus and recent antiracism protests may also see foreign capitals choose to wait.

Trump’s defence secretary and chair of the joint chiefs of staff both issued statements in June committing to protecting the US constitution, thinly veiled rebukes to the president’s ideas of assuming federal control to impose order by force.

The rare impression of a US president at public odds with his armed forces was underscored when former military leaders, including Jim Mattis, his first secretary of defence, spoke out to condemn Trump more directly. Mattis’s comments have a special resonance abroad — until his resignation in 2019 he travelled widely to persuade allies that the US’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 has done to US alliances with other Western nations.

Trump has also made no secret of his desire for political favours, according to a forthcoming book by John Bolton, Trump’s former national security adviser, who writes that in 2019 the president 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 UK 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.

Handshakes devalued

“Under this president, our handshake is devalued and our values are in tatters,” said Brett McGurk, the former US 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 have orientated much of their Iran strategy in recent months towards 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 nations sceptical of the EU such as Poland’s President Andrzej Duda, who visits Washington this week.

Meanwhile, US special envoy for the Balkans Richard Grenell, a Trump loyalist, has organised a meeting of the leaders of Serbia and Kosovo in Washington June 27, sidelining the EU which had been mediating in the search for a settlement. Tension in the Balkans has 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 US 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 US in any case remains too powerful to ignore entirely. One European diplomat in Washington said many capitals learnt 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 huge swings in US policy are here to stay, meaning allies will need to rely less on Washington, no matter who wins in November. That is 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 US is too great.

Biden, for example, has pledged to undo Trump policies that were themselves drastic reversals. The former vice-president says he would re-enter the Paris climate agreement on the first day of his administration and review all US tariffs and sanctions imposed under Trump. If Iran were to recommit to its obligations under the nuclear accord the US would “strengthen and extend” the agreement, according to Biden’s campaign website.

US unpredictability has been on full display in the global battle against the coronavirus, with the US giving other countries no warning about its decision to defund the WHO — the latest in a string of international treaties and organisations 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 UK, Hong Kong’s former colonial overseer and arguably the US’s closest ally.

America’s alliance network, based on a core of defence 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 US would be much more expensive for any one of our allies” as well as for the US itself, she said.

Yet that optimism may fade with a second Trump term. Asked if Trump Mark-II might be able to replace the post-war architecture alliances with a new, more ad hoc and interest-based network of international relationships, she was sceptical.

Said Rapp-Hooper, a senior fellow for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations: “I don’t see the US as a credible builder of a new world order.”

Bloomberg