President Barack Obama is trying but failing to reassure foreign leaders convinced that Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. They’re in full-boil panic.
According to more than two dozen U.S. and foreign-government officials, Trump has become the starting point for what feels like every government-to-government interaction. In meetings, private dinners and phone calls, world leaders are urgently seeking explanations from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Trade Representative Michael Froman on down. American ambassadors are asking for guidance from Washington about what they’re supposed to say.
“They’re scared and they’re trying to understand how real this is,” said one American official in touch with foreign leaders. “They all ask. They follow our politics with excruciating detail. They ask: ‘What is this Trump phenomenon? Can he really win? What would it mean for U.S. policy going forward or U.S. engagement in the world?’ They’re all sort of incredulous.”
Obama hears world leaders’ fears about the Republican front-runner so often that he has developed a speech meant to ease their nerves.
First, he walks them through the Republican primary process: Trump has had success, but there are big states yet to vote and the front-runner could still stumble. Then he explains the complications of the GOP convention and how weak rules and convoluted balloting could leave Trump a loser. And finally, Obama assures America’s allies that Hillary Clinton can defeat the Manhattan billionaire.
It’s a familiar routine but not a particularly successful one. They respond — sometimes directly to Obama and other top administration officials, sometimes stewing privately about being brushed off again — that the Obama administration has been downplaying Trump’s odds for six months.
“Most people said that he didn’t have the wit, wisdom or wealth to get very far in the primaries,” said Peter Mandelson, a member of the British Cabinet under Prime Ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, as well as a former European commissioner for trade who remains in touch with many leaders. “And they’ve been wrong.”
Now, world leaders cop to being afraid of a Trump presidency, and they’re making preparations: scrambling to get deals done with the Obama administration while they still have the chance.
Leaders, members of their governments, even their aides are so spooked that they don’t want to say anything, and many privately admit that it’s because they think he’ll win, and a quote now could mean a vengeful President Trump going after them personally next year.
“As we’re on the record, I’m rather hesitant to give you big headlines on this,” said Olli Rehn, the Finnish minister of economic affairs. “In Europe, we are concerned about the U.S. possibly turning toward a more isolationist orientation. That would not be good for United States, good for Europe, good for the world. We need the U.S. engaged in global affairs in a constructive, positive way.”
They’re not caught up in some gushy lament about what’s become of American politics, as Obama has sometimes framed the conversations when he’s talked about them publicly. They’re worried about what it means for them: for their arms deals, for their trade deals, for international funding and alliances that they depend on.
“However much people recoiled from George W. Bush or have been disappointed by Obama, they see Trump as off the Richter scale,” Mandelson said. “The reason for that is not that he must be stupid — nobody thinks that — but that he’s disdainful, unscrupulous, prepared to say anything to harvest the populist vote. And that makes people frightened.”
Then there are the more parochial concerns: that Trump’s rise will encourage and empower their own nationalists.
“Trump solutions for me are false solutions, but they’re not original. They’re things that we have heard in Europe from extremist sections,” said Sandro Gozi, a member of the Italian parliament and undersecretary for European affairs in Prime Minister Mateo Renzi’s Cabinet.
Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
White House aides are bracing for more of these conversations — at the Persian Gulf leaders’ summit that wraps up in Riyadh on Thursday, a stay in London over the weekend and a trip to Germany that will include a joint meeting of Obama, Merkel, Renzi, British Prime Minister David Cameron and French President François Hollande.
“It’s not the America that they’re used to dealing with,” another senior administration official said. “Our message back to them is we’re committed to the policies we’re pursuing now. That is not going to change. A message of reassurance, but we can’t control the campaign rhetoric, the election process. But we can control what we’re doing and are committed to.”
Many governments have stepped up their requests for information from their embassies, and a number of leaders ordered up expanded briefings while in Washington for the Nuclear Security Summit.
“We are trying really to understand the different kinds of messages,” said Andris Razans, the Latvian ambassador to the United States, where Trump’s praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin has sparked fears in the media that as president he would hand Ukraine, Syria and the Baltic region to the Russian autocrat. “It is part of our daily business to understand how the picture is unfolding.”
When Razans raises questions in private about Trump, he said the Obama administration tries to assuage any concerns by saying the candidate won’t be able to follow through on his most provocative pronouncements if he lands in the White House.
“People say, ‘Well it is an election campaign and when things come down to governing after the elections, they are often changing because there are some realities that simply one has to take into account,’” Razans said.
Larger European nations have been more patient, reassured by embassies in Washington that tend to have more experience monitoring and interpreting American politics, though they are annoyed to be portrayed as useless freeloaders by Trump on NATO and other issues.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, said that during a recent congressional trip to Africa he was startled in meetings with many heads of state and their ministers “with very spotty records of their own, to put it mildly,” mentioned their shock at Trump’s success.
Representatives of Arab governments have, so far, seemed the calmest, still largely laughing off Trump and dismissing his chances.
The Israelis are walking their own weird tightrope: Benjamin Netanyahu’s government has been perennially at odds with the Obama administration, but with the prime minister condemning the Muslim ban proposal and ducking a meeting on what was supposed to be a Trump tour of the Holy Land in December — all while his U.S. ambassador and confidant, Ron Dermer, consulted with the candidate’s son-in-law, who was writing Trump’s speech to AIPAC last month.
Asked about their interactions with the Obama administration and views on Trump, Israeli Embassy spokesman Aaron Sagui declined comment altogether.
Asia-Pacific countries have long been expressing the most concern that Trump and what he represents will lead to an American withdrawal from the region, particularly on trade negotiations, that will empower China, and since Trump’s comments about the North Korean nuclear threat and other Asian issues in his extensive foreign policy interview with The New York Times last month, they’ve gotten manic.
“They want to know if this represents a fundamental change. Is this retrenchment? Retreat?” said a senior State Department official, citing “angst and concern” across the region that decades-long American commitments on security and trade might be in jeopardy.
In South Korea and Japan in particular, the official said, “there is a backlash” over Trump’s repeated — and false — assertions that those countries do not contribute financially to the U.S. security umbrella. “They take that personally.”
American officials have begun pointing to Jimmy Carter to ease frayed nerves. When he was running in 1976, then-candidate Carter pledged to pull all U.S. troops out of South Korea. He didn’t follow through. “That provoked a huge crisis in the alliance,” the State official said. “The older people remember that.”
Administration officials, though, see an upside: Trump anxiety overseas has translated to a surprising eagerness on the part of foreign governments to ink new agreements.
At the Department of Energy, which interacts daily with foreign nations to address climate change, boost the security of nuclear weapons, and cooperate on a host of civilian power projects, the deep uncertainty has translated into an unusual level of engagement, according to a top official.
“It has really focused people on getting work done with us,” said Deputy Energy Secretary Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, citing a new high-level commission to cooperate with South Korea on nuclear energy and a formal discussion with the United Arab Emirates to build new partnerships on civil-nuclear cooperation, energy and nuclear security, and climate change.
“We come with opportunities that are serious and important to them,” Sherwood-Randall said. “They want to do everything they can to get it done.”
Rehn, the Finnish minister, pointed to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the United States and the European Union. “At least on the European side, there is an effort to try to speed things up,” Rehn said.
There’s always some interest in closing up negotiations with an outgoing administration rather than waiting for a new one to get on its feet. The prospect of Trump has heightened that, said the American official who’s in touch with foreign leaders.
“They see that this is an administration that they can work with, and they don’t know what’s going to come next,” the official said.
Certainly, there’s some schadenfreude at play, too, particularly in Germany. After years of being lectured about democracy by Americans, they’re taking in over a million refugees while Trump’s talking about a ban on Muslim immigration. That say that gives them the moral high ground, and a sense of the erosion of America’s soft power in Europe.
But all over the world, leaders are trying to decipher how serious Trump is about what he’s saying. Some are convinced he’ll back away from the policies he’s espoused on the campaign trail, while others worry that he’ll have to stick to at least some of it — and for them, any percentage would be a problem. In Germany, for example, gauging Trump’s commitment to his promises is the extent to which they’ve brought him up with their American counterparts.
Gozi said allies are just as concerned about what a new world order would be like if Trump holds firm to his promises as they are if he starts to drop some of them.
“We would open a more and more complicated phase if he does what he’s saying he would do,” Gozi said. “If he doesn’t, it’ll be a big question mark.”