During the presidential campaign, many foreign ambassadors quietly warned that a Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.
It’s easy to see why. As Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Clinton supporter, put it in a column over the weekend, Trump’s victory marks the end of America as the anchor of a liberal international order.
This was certainly how the president-elect campaigned. On the trail, Trump shattered the bipartisan foreign policy consensus on issues ranging from the NATO alliance to the prohibition of torture. He mused about a nuclear Japan and boasted he knew more than the generals.
So one might expect that after Trump’s victory, U.S. allies and adversaries would begin exploring new relationships in a post-American world. It’s early days, but this is not yet apparent. Instead, America’s friends and foes are exploring whether Trump is a man with whom they can do business — someone they can meet half way.
On the adversary side, the clearest example is Russia. The Kremlin has signaled it’s open to a new relationship with the U.S. under Trump, even as it increases the pace of its bombardment of Aleppo in Syria.
The Chinese are also sending out feelers now to Trump to see whether they can get along with a man who has railed for years about China’s predations against the U.S. economy. One former senior Republican defense official told me that last week former Chinese foreign policy officials had a dinner with a group of Republican former officials, where the Chinese side said Beijing wanted a constructive relationship with Trump and would be open to new kinds of military-to-military cooperation.
This message stands in contrast to the Chinese readout of the phone call between Trump and President Xi Jinping. As Bloomberg reported last week, Xi reminded Trump that Republican presidents had pressed his country to tackle climate change and that this was not a Chinese-invented hoax, as the president-elect has tweeted.
The account of the dinner does, however, track with what many observers are seeing from foreign governments since Trump won the election. Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the executive committee for the Trump transition, told me there has been a “Trump effect” in this respect.
He said he has talked to senior officials from a dozen allied nations since Election Day. “I tell them what the president-elect tells me,” Nunes said. “He wants tough, serious people. They are asking the basic questions. They are scrambling to find out what this new administration will be like and who is going to be in the top posts.” But Nunes said allies’ main message to him is to see whether there are new chances for cooperation with the next president they never imagined would actually win the election.
The Trump effect is visible in NATO, the alliance that was forged in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union and remains a bulwark against Vladimir Putin’s Russia. For years, the U.S. has prodded its European allies to pay their fair share — 2 percent of gross national product — for defense in the trans-Atlantic alliance. But despite these pleas, the big European states continued to cut their military budgets, even though newer members like the Baltic countries did pay their share.
There are signs this may be changing. As a candidate, Trump complained about NATO countries failing to make good on their financial commitments to the alliance. On the sidelines this weekend of the Halifax International Security Forum, Rose Gottemoeller, the new deputy secretary general for NATO, told me: “Frankly during the campaign, we in Brussels welcomed the Trump team and President-elect Trump’s insistence on this point because it has caused a lot of allies to sit up and take notice.”