The Democrats’ lack of interest in the world will also be noted. Foreign policy was barely mentioned in Las Vegas. As the candidates shouted at each other, they seemed unaware that voters would be judging them in part on their fitness to be commander in chief. Rather than discuss rational global climate policies, such as a carbon tax, they talked about putting U.S. energy executives in jail.
But the world moves on. If a sensible, moderate Democrat seems unlikely to emerge from the scrum, then U.S. allies and adversaries will prepare for the likelihood of four more years of the erratic, bullying, “America First” incumbent. Countries will hedge their bets, knowing that Trump’s promises are unreliable. Even for the closest U.S. allies, friendship is not a suicide pact. They will adjust, accommodate and distance.
This concern about a United States adrift from its traditional leadership role was evident last weekend at the Munich Security Conference. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier spoke for many at the conference when he complained: “Our closest ally, the United States of America, under the current administration, rejects the very concept of the international community.”
Europeans are realizing, too, that the United States’ turn inward goes much deeper than Trump. Steinmeier bemoaned Trump’s retreat from transatlantic ties, but he recognized, “We know that this shift began a while ago, and it will continue even after this administration.”
A former top national security official in Republican and Democratic administrations summed up the implications of the U.S. political morass for foreign allies: “They understand now that waiting it out is not a good strategy. They know that the backstop is no longer there.”
Europeans feel a nostalgia for the old order, summed up in the “Westlessness” theme of the Munich conference. But there’s opportunism, too — a desire to expand influence as America’s contracts. You could see the gleam in the eye of French President Emmanuel Macron as he discussed onstage with Wolfgang Ischinger, the conference’s chairman, the possibility that Germany might soon look to France’s nuclear deterrent, rather than depending solely on U.S. pledges.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acted as though this European disaffection doesn’t exist. “I’m happy to report that the death of the transatlantic alliance is grossly overexaggerated,” he told the conference. “The West is winning, and we’re winning together.” That bland reassurance didn’t find much traction, even among Americans in the audience.
What puzzles Europeans is that the United States seems to want to have it both ways. “America wants to retrench, but it also wants to remain a hegemon and tell people what to do,” says a former senior European intelligence official. “That isn’t going to work.”
Anxiety abroad about Trump’s reelection was probably augmented by Wednesday’s announcement that he would appoint Richard Grenell, ambassador to Germany and a ferocious political loyalist, as acting director of national intelligence.
Allies worry that Grenell’s appointment signals an expanding campaign to control the intelligence community and retaliate against Trump’s perceived enemies. If allies decide that a second-term Trump will compromise the independence and professionalism of U.S. intelligence agencies, they may begin to reconsider their liaison relationships.
Who benefits in a world where Republicans trumpet “America First” and Democrats don’t even debate foreign policy? The answer is painfully obvious to foreign officials. As the United States retreats, China steps forward. Since Xi’s accession in 2013, China has advertised its plans to dominate global technology and business.
Defense Secretary Mark T. Esper talked in Munich of making the world choose between being America’s technology partner or China’s. But he isn’t going to like the answer: Even Britain, the United States’ closest ally, has said it plans to continue its relationship with Huawei, China’s flagship technology company.
The Democrats seemed poised on the edge of a cliff Wednesday night, heading toward nomination of a candidate who could be as polarizing as Trump. Maybe the Democrats will find a way back from the brink and pick a winner. But the world is adjusting to the prospect that Trump’s version of America may be here a good while longer.