Beyond the vaunted “bromance” between Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin, which one expert said might quickly devolve into conflict, the world has caught only glimpses of Trump’s overseas priorities.
Those include making international bodies such as NATO and the United Nations shoulder more of their own way, getting Mexico to pay for a wall along the shared border and renegotiating “terrible” U.S. trade deals with global partners.
But specifics are vague, and world leaders expressed more than a little confusion Wednesday about what comes next in relations between their nations and the United States.
Much of the immediate focus was on an expected drop in tensions between the United States and Russia, whose president, Vladimir Putin, was among the first world leaders to congratulate Trump on his electoral triumph.
The Kremlin, in a brief statement, said Putin expressed “his hope to work together for removing Russian-American relations from their crisis state.”
Putin, whom U.S. Democrats accused of trying to interfere in the American election, also said he had “confidence that building a constructive dialogue between Moscow and Washington that is based on principles of equality, mutual respect and taking each other’s positions into account (is) in the interests of our peoples and the world community.”
“Trump seems to be sympathetic to Putin’s view of the world,” said Stephen D. Biddle, a defense policy expert at George Washington University.
But what might unfold between Russia and the United States, the globe’s two original antagonistic nuclear powers, in corners of the globe like Syria and the Baltic nations, and how the Trump-Putin chemistry may evolve, is unknown.
Trump is as close to a complete wild card as any president I’ve ever seen.
Stephen D. Biddle, Russia expert at George Washington University
“Trump is as close to a complete wild card as any president I’ve ever seen,” Biddle said.
On several occasions, Trump has voiced admiration for Putin, saying he is a powerful leader who is “doing a great job” and exercises “very strong control over a country.”
“It’s a very different system and I don’t happen to like the system, but certainly, in that system, he’s been a leader, far more than our president has been a leader,” Trump said in early September.
One question that hovers is whether Trump and Putin are too alike to avoid serious clashes.
“The similarity of their personalities is already a troubling reality,” said Nina Khrushcheva, a professor of international relations at The New School, a research university in New York City. “They won’t back off. They are both bullies.”
Khrushcheva, the great-granddaughter of former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev, said the two could quickly clash over perceived slights or lack of respect.
Putin is a very smart man and he understands that the relationship can go sour in five seconds.
Nina Khrushcheva, greatgranddaughter of former Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev
“Similarities can bring contempt,” Khrushcheva added. “Putin is a very smart man and he understands that the relationship can go sour in five seconds.”
World leaders congratulated Trump but consternation was palpable behind the scenes.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Wednesday: “Germany and America are bound by their values: democracy, freedom, the respect for the law and the dignity of human beings, independent of their origin, skin color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or political position. On the basis of these values I offer the future president of the United States, Donald Trump, close cooperation.”
Her defense minister, Ursula von der Leyen, admitted that Trump’s win was a “heavy shock.”
“Of course we Europeans know as NATO partners that Donald Trump will ask himself what we are contributing to the alliance,” she said. “But we will also be asking, what is your position on the alliance? Many questions are open. A responsible and open America is in our interests.”
We don't know how Donald Trump will govern America.
German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier
In fact, that theme, of not knowing, was present in much international assessment of the election. German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said, simply, “We don’t know how Donald Trump will govern America.”
Uncertainty prevailed across the 28 NATO countries, on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria and even at home in the Pentagon, whose generals Trump has derided as incompetent.
“Anybody who sees themselves as potential targets of Russian meddling has got to be concerned,” Biddle said, including the three Baltic nations tucked under Russia’s eastern wing.
Syria’s embattled leader, Bashar Assad, “may be happier about this than Putin,” Biddle added, because Russia is determined to keep him in power and a Trump administration may relax pressure on him, although that is not certain.
Donald Trump does not have a well-designed policy vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq.
Evelyn Farkas, senior fellow at the Atlantic Council
“Donald Trump does not have a well-designed policy vis-à-vis Syria and Iraq,” said Evelyn Farkas, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense who now is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a think tank. “All he’s said is that he wants to bomb the ‘F’ out of ISIS.”
U.S.-led forces are in a campaign to retake the cities of Mosul in northern Iraq and Raqqa, the Syrian city that serves as de facto capital of the Islamic State, that radical group also known as ISIS. The military campaign is unlikely to finish cleanly before Trump takes office Jan. 20.
Trump, who has announced that he will push for a vast buildup of Pentagon military strength, may have to navigate some rough transitional waters, Farkas said.
“This is a candidate who dismissed the opinions of intelligence experts, of which there are many running around the Pentagon, and of generals,” she said.
It is precisely those generals who manage the day-to-day military alliance with European allies in the face of potential Russian hostility. Moscow has long been aggrieved by U.S. pushing of NATO expansion to its flanks.
Trump has talked about NATO. But his comments have been more along the lines of his statement that “our allies are not paying their fair share.”
Speaking this summer, he pointed out that only four of 28 NATO member nations spend the recommended 2 percent of their gross domestic product on defense. Tying defense spending to GDP is a way to ensure that nations more equally share the burden of funding the international treaty. The United States spends more than twice the NATO recommendation, and has a much larger GDP than other member nations, so it puts far more money into defense spending than its allies.
They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us.
Donald Trump, president-elect
“Our allies must contribute toward the financial, political and human costs of our tremendous security burden,” Trump said this summer. “But many of them are simply not doing so. They look at the United States as weak and forgiving and feel no obligation to honor their agreements with us.”
This summer, in analyzing Trump’s position on NATO, German security expert Patrick Keller, at the center-right Berlin-based think tank Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung, said such thinking ignored the fact that the United States also reaped substantial global influence because of its defense spending. He also noted that it is not a new discussion point.
“It’s been around since the fall of the Soviet Union,” Keller said.
James de Waal, a security and defense expert at Chatham House, a London policy center, said Trump’s take on NATO was not new but that “it’s a partial picture”: “The U.S. is in Europe to protect its own interests, not solely to protect European nations. By being present in Europe, the United States gets to control the security situation, and that’s an advantage to the U.S.”
He added that the United States “gets stuff in return.” Bases, for instance. And loyalty from allies. He pointed out that “Denmark and the United Kingdom have suffered casualties at a higher per capita level than the United States in Afghanistan.”
Still, Merkel said that for all that wasn’t known, it was impossible to ignore the election.
“Whoever the American people elect as their president in free and fair elections, that has a significance far beyond the United States,” the chancellor said in Berlin on Wednesday.