World wonders: Would a new president revive the old order?

Why We Wrote This

Most world leaders and their publics have lost faith in Donald Trump’s presidency. But the last four years may have made it impossible for his successor to return to foreign policy as normal.

Christian Hartmann/Reuters
French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel look at U.S. President Donald Trump during a photo opportunity at the 2019 NATO summit in Britain. Neither European leader has succeeded in building a working relationship with Mr. Trump.

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Not since America became the leading world power have foreign leaders watched a presidential election with such close attention. And not just because President Donald Trump was hospitalized with COVID-19.

They are puzzling, of course, over who will win the election. But beyond that they are wondering whether – even if Joe Biden wins – America will return to foreign policy as normal, or whether “America First” will have left its mark.

Most of them hope for a return to the old days, and so do their publics. A Pew Research Center international survey last month found that only 16% of respondents trusted Mr. Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” The numbers rating America “favorably” were the lowest since the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Washington’s allies would like to see three things from the next administration: steadiness, predictability, and trust. Mr. Biden measures up on all three metrics, but it is not clear whether he would comprehensively reengage the U.S. as a leading player in world politics.

It may be that in the years since he was vice president, American politics have fundamentally changed.

The world is watching Washington as never before. And not just for news of the physical well-being of a president hospitalized with COVID-19.

For weeks now – and with a closer focus than at any time since the United States emerged as a world power – political leaders around the globe have been following the U.S. election campaign.

Many traditional allies seem to be rooting for Donald Trump’s Democratic Party challenger, Joe Biden. Yet beyond the obvious imponderable – the election result itself – they have a deeper concern: Is the Trump administration’s “America First” mindset, even if in a less brash and unpredictable form, here to stay even under a President Biden?

Would a Biden victory necessarily signal an end to America’s retreat from the international engagement and leadership that the U.S. assumed after World War II? And would that prove true for the most critical geopolitical challenge the allies share with Washington: navigating the rise of Xi Jinping’s China?

World leaders’ focus on the election has for now been overshadowed by news about President Trump’s illness, and the overwhelming official response worldwide has been to wish him and his wife well.

Still, even the get-well messages betrayed signs in a number of countries of their increasingly tenuous trust in Mr. Trump’s presidency. There were exceptions: early, wholehearted wishes for a recovery from the leaders of Israel, India, Mexico, and Turkey, with all of whom Mr. Trump has forged strong personal and political ties.

But the messages from European allies Germany and France were more formulaic. And remarks from the French government spokesman had a sting in the tail – a message echoed by Asian allies, including Japan and Australia: Mr. Trump’s illness was a reminder of the fact COVID-19 can strike anyone, and that public-health precautions like masking are important to limit its spread.

The close attention that many allies are paying to the run-up to the election is explained by more than the administration’s response to the pandemic or by any specific policy issues. It’s about a trio of qualities that all governments – allies and foes, large countries or small – find essential in charting their own policy course: steadiness, predictability, and trust.

The release last month of the latest annual survey by the Pew Research Center of America’s image abroad was a timely preelection measure of how weak these have become. In the 13 nations surveyed – nine European states, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Canada – “favorable” ratings were the lowest they have been since the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Yet even starker than the global view of America was the level of international confidence in Mr. Trump himself to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

Ahn Young-joon/AP
South Korean citizens in Seoul hold up signs wishing Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump a quick recovery from the coronavirus. Supporters of the U.S. president make up less than 20% of the South Korean population, a recent poll found.

The average was a mere 16%. In South Korea, where support for Mr. Trump briefly shot up after his summits with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, it was now 17%. In Canada, 20%. The country with the strongest public faith in Mr. Trump was Japan, but even there only 25% of respondents expressed trust in the U.S. president.

By contrast, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s average rating was 76%.

Ms. Merkel is among a range of allied leaders – including France’s President Emmanuel Macron and Canada’s Justin Trudeau – who made serious efforts early in Mr. Trump’s term to forge working relationships with the president. None succeeded.

No allied leaders are going so far as to say explicitly they want Mr. Biden to win. They’re not going to do so, if only because he may lose. But widespread reporting of comments by policy experts, and sometimes officials, in these countries has charted a growing exasperation with Mr. Trump.

In Mr. Biden, they see the prospect of restoring at least two of the prerequisites for something nearer to foreign policy as usual before Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory: steadiness and predictability. They’re hopeful of being able to rebuild trust as well, in part because Mr. Biden has long supported the alliances and institutions built by the U.S. in the post-World War II years.

Still, they’re less confident that a Biden administration would comprehensively reengage America as a leading player in world politics.

Mr. Biden’s emphasis on “buying American” in his blueprint for a post-COVID-19 economic recovery, for example, is being seen by some abroad as reflecting the more inward-looking popular mood that has been growing ever since the Iraq War. That mood was critical to Mr. Trump’s 2016 election victory, and has now been reinforced by the pandemic.

Most allies, however, do expect that a President Biden would resume America’s leading role in efforts on climate change. And Washington’s military allies around the globe expect far greater consultation and cohesion within bodies such as NATO.

But would he, for instance, move to revive the international nuclear deal with Iran?

Would he seek to rejoin the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact with Asian allies as an economic and political counterbalance to China’s growing influence?

That’s far less certain, some allies suspect. And not so much because Mr. Biden himself might now regret such initiatives, made when he was Barack Obama’s vice president. Rather, foreign leaders are wondering whether American politics may have changed fundamentally in the intervening years.

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