PARIS — In the dark early hours before dawn Wednesday, President-elect Donald Trump sounded like he wanted to put back in their grimy boxes the scabrous demons that candidate Trump set free on the American landscape.
Speaking to his ecstatic supporters, he praised his crushed opponent’s service to her country and said it was time to “bind the wounds of division.” And maybe, just maybe, he can do that. Inside the United States, he has a mandate. He has the House and Senate. He has no discernible ideology to constrain him. He has considerable room to maneuver—and to moderate. He has no obligation to meet the ugliest expectations of some of those, like the Ku Klux Klan, which supported him.
But the great wide world is a much more complicated, more unforgiving, and ultimately much more dangerous place—dangerous like nuclear war is dangerous; dangerous like terrorism and guerrilla quagmires are dangerous; dangerous like a global recession or even a depression is dangerous.
Trump is first, foremost and always a businessman, and he sees world affairs as simple transactional matters. “We will get along with all other nations willing to get along with us,” he told the crowd in his victory speech. “We will always put America’s interests first, but we will deal fairly with everyone. We will seek common ground, not hostility, partnership not conflict.”
So he will build his famous wall, and he will make his "partner" Mexico pay for it? The Daily Beast's Andrea Noel reports that many Mexicans, after the initial shock of Trump's election, are hoping this construction project will get bogged down in bureaucracy and funding issues—which is likely. And there may be less enthusiasm for it in the fiscally conservative Republican Congress than there was at Trump's rallies.
Given the backdrop of Trump’s earlier campaign rhetoric, dictators around the world will know how to read that phrase about getting along with all other nations willing to get along with us: The new president of the United States, a pure pragmatist, does not care about human rights, or women’s rights, or seemingly intangible (to him) climate change. Not his business. Not our business. He just wants to make deals when those suit him and, oh, by the way, tear up past agreements—on Iran’s nuclear program, on free trade, on climate change—if they don’t. That’s the way he always did business, and that’s almost certainly the way he’ll try to do statecraft.
The author of The Art of the Deal, after all, thinks he’s a genius at this stuff. (Again, let’s hope.) He even thinks Russian President Vladimir Putin called him one. (He didn’t.)
But it’s clear already that Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, Iran’s Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and assorted ruling thugs around the world are rejoicing at the prospect of dealing with an American president who’ll make no moral demands, while they outmaneuver him at every turn. After all, nobody is easier to bamboozle than a fool who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room. Or so they may think.
While Trump talked about Americans’ dreams in his victory speech, his campaign did much to destroy what the rest of the planet thought of as the American Dream: a nation conceived in liberty and lighting the way to freedom for oppressed peoples around the world.
There may always have been a heavy measure of hypocrisy in that picture, but without it, as a purely transactional player on the world scene, America is just another nation among many. And for the traditional European establishment, that’s hard to fathom.
American troops fought to liberate their people from Nazism, helped them rebuild with the Marshall Plan, organized a bulwark against Soviet communism. And the Europeans themselves have fought for seven long decades to rise from the ashes of populist nationalism that tore the Continent apart in World Wars, slaughtering whole generations of its children. As a consequence, these traditional Europeans have reacted with special horror to the election results in the States.
“President Trump Gives Hatred the Semblance of Legitimacy,” reads the headline on a major Dutch paper, Volkskrant. The website of Business News Radio called Trump “The Duterte of the U.S.,” alluding to the populist president of the Philippines who’s unleashed a gruesome wave of vigilante killings in his country.
Germany’s Zeit headlined, “The Calamity”: “Donald Trump for a long time was just a bad joke. Now he will be president. The world should be afraid of what this unpredictable man will come up with next.”
What establishment Europeans fear, without question, is that Trump will inspire and invigorate growing populist movements, from the Brexiteers to Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands—people who are bent on dividing and destroying the union of European nations as it exists.
France’s right-wing anti-immigrant, anti-euro, anti-EU Marine Le Pen tweeted congratulations to Trump on his victory Wednesday morning even before he’d given his speech. UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Wilders, and others were not far behind.
The French presidential elections coming up next spring “will be terrible,” writes columnist Pierre Haski. “Our politicians will want to become ‘France’s Trump,’ and start an escalation of demagoguery.”
President Putin, too, was quick to congratulate President-elect Trump, and in a statement “expressed confidence that the dialogue between Moscow and Washington, in keeping with each other’s views, [will meet] the interests of both Russia and the U.S.”
Ergo, under Trump’s transactional policies the United States will ease or end sanctions imposed against Russia to punish it for annexing Crimea and fueling the civil war in Ukraine. (And maybe there will be cooperation in Syria—but we’ll come back to that.)
In Kiev, reports Christian Borys, the mood can be described simply as “unmitigated disaster.” But in Moscow, Anna Nemtsova reports, as the American results came, in the mood grew euphoric. Political activists and aides to members of the Russian parliament, including members of the far-right Rodina party, gathered at a pub to watch the results on CNN. “America has elected Trump!” the screen announced. “Yes!!!” they shouted, then broke into the kind of cheer you hear at soccer matches: “Olé-olé-olé-olé—Russia forward!”
In China, according to The Daily Beast’s Brendon Hong, when it comes to direct liaisons between the United States and the People’s Republic, Chinese bureaucrats are confident the new American president is no match for them. Indeed, it’s been reported that one senior official could barely suppress his grin as he told Foreign Policy, “We can handle Trump.”
One of China’s biggest worries, and possibly the most urgent, is North Korea. Hong reports that “as Beijing puts up the appearance of shielding Pyongyang from the West, they actually are squeezing Kim Jong Un” with declining trade activity and shrinking aid.” The Chinese felt they could have depended on Clinton’s steady policies, even if there was no overt coordination. “Beijing does not have the same confidence in Trump,” says Hong.
Author and longtime Seoul correspondent Donald Kirk writes that Trump’s victory “should give a substantial boost to advocates of a nuclear South Korea. He has said both South Korea and Japan should have nukes. That supports his view that the U.S. should be pulling troops from South Korea and Japan, leaving them to their own defenses. Nuclear weapons could be seen as an integral part of those defenses—just as North Korea has repeatedly said it needs nukes for defensive purposes. Of course, nukes are much more than ‘defensive’—and the implications for nuclear-armed Northeast Asian states eventually using them are disturbing.”
Jake Adelstein writes from Tokyo that Trump’s election was so unexpected in Japan, some newspapers quickly whipped up explainer articles introducing the next president and trying to figure out how he won. Japan’s Mainichi newspaper posted an article online with the title: “Presidential Elections: The Winner Donald Trump. By the way, what kind of person is he?”
One of the agreements Trump has said repeatedly he wants to tear up is the one with Iran freezing its nuclear program and preventing it from developing atomic weapons for years to come. Although the arrangement reopened Iran’s economy and unfroze billions of dollars of its assets, the hardliners have not been happy with the nuclear constraints, nor with the impression promoted by their reformist rivals that Iran can get along easily with Washington.
How might Trump scupper the accord? Some of the hawks he will bring into his administration may think the best way to proceed is to threaten war, and then wage it if necessary. But Trump, so proud of saying he was against the Iraq invasion (whether he was or not) is not likely to go along with that scenario.
Valerie Lincy, executive director of The Wisconsin Project and IranWatch, tells us, “Trump was initially not as harsh as other Republicans, but hardened his rhetoric during the general election campaign. He can easily renege on U.S. commitments under the deal, which were mostly done by executive order suspending (not lifting) secondary sanctions that allow foreign parties to trade and transact with Iran. But I’m not sure that he will. The dynamic with Putin will play a part”—Russia now being a close Iran ally—“and may moderate the Trump administration’s position.
“I think the main risk to the Iran deal (still) comes from Congress,” writes Lincy. “Republicans in Congress will now be able to kill the deal by imposing conditions and penalties that would cause Iran to walk away and the rest of the parties to blame the U.S. Would Trump veto such measures. Or would he try to work with Congress to moderate the measures themselves?”
Even to begin to try to get a new agreement, if that truly is the objective, Trump’s going to have to have strong international backing for new sanctions and pressure.
“If he’s rash,” says an Iran expert in Europe with extensive ties in both Tehran and the U.S., “he’ll just break the deal, thinking that’s enough to take the world with him. Wrong. If he’s smart he’ll get the OFAC [the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control] hounds to start killing the deal by stymieing European trade, hoping it will coax the Iranians to break the deal. Then he’ll be able to blame them and take the Security Council with him.”
But it may well be the Iranian leadership will move no further, and will restart its program. What then? One can only guess.
In some negotiating situations, having an unpredictable leader might be thought helpful, as Richard Nixon imagined when he pursued his “madman” strategy with North Vietnam to convince Hanoi there was almost nothing he would not do. But in the end that didn’t turn out so well.
And then there’s the matter of the so-called Islamic State. The art of the deal is not especially useful when confronting fanatics inclined to behead or immolate anyone who fails to follow their rules. And Trump’s pronouncements during his campaign do not give him or us much insight into how he might construct an approach dramatically different from the faltering policies of the Obama administration.
The Daily Beast’s front line correspondent in the current offensive against ISIS in Mosul, Florian Neuhof, summed up the situation as he sees it:
“My hope is that many of Trump’s campaign statements are bluster designed to boost his strongman image,” writes Neuhof. “I don’t feel he in any way understands world politics, let alone the Middle East, and he has tried to appeal to uneducated, poor white voters who would fall for such nonsense tough talk.
“I have a feeling that whoever is in power in the U.S. will not change the dynamics in Iraq significantly. Iran’s creeping takeover of the country will not be contained by anything other than a huge re-engagement by the U.S., which I don’t believe Trump is up for.
“Trump’s anti-Tehran stance will be welcomed by Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states, and could heighten the Sunni-Shia rift in the region to potentially catastrophic levels,” says Neuhof. “If Iran feels threatened by the U.S., it will double up on its efforts to strengthen its proxies, and more proxy wars could be the consequence.”
America’s new president has said repeatedly he wanted to join with Russia, which would mean joining with Syrian President Bashar Assad, to fight ISIS. But as Neuhof points out, “Ironically, U.S. support for the Assad regime would play right into the hands of Iran, which has a huge interest in keeping the dictator in place. Assad and Russia have systematically fought the more moderate elements of the rebels, while leaving ISIS largely unscathed, in order to present the world with the stark choice between a murderous regime in Damascus and a murderous regime in Raqqa. That Trump fails to see that speaks volumes about his grasp of world affairs.”
A key player in all this is Turkey’s increasingly authoritarian President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. “Personally and on behalf of the nation, I wish to consider this decision by the American people a positive sign,” he wrote to Trump. Roy Gutman writes from Istanbul that the effusive greeting might embarrass any another U.S. politician since Erdogan just arrested 10 parliamentarians from the Kurdish People’s Democratic Party and detained leading journalists from Cumhuriyet, the daily close to the secular Republican People’s Party. Erdogan’s facing mounting international pressure because of his human rights record, but, then Trump and Erdogan both are used to ignoring their critics. As Erdogan declared Sunday: “I don’t care if they call me a dictator. I care what my people say about me.”