Talking with foreign officials in recent weeks, I’ve been struck by the intensity of their interest in what happens on Nov. 3. They have studied up on the electoral college, the quirks of mail-in voting, the prospect of post-election violence in the streets and disputes in the courts. To say the world is watching does not begin to describe the global focus on the United States.
Among America’s traditional allies — Britain, France, Germany, Japan, Australia — there’s a yearning for renewed collaboration and coordinated policy. Foreign leaders miss U.S. leadership, despite our occasional past arrogance and mistakes. Diplomats tell me the prospect of a second Trump term is as puzzling and unsettling to them as it is to many Americans.
But attention on the United States is hyperfocused in a half-dozen world capitals where Trump’s disruptive foreign policy has had the greatest consequences, positive and negative: Russia, North Korea, China, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran. These are the potential flash points in the interregnum between the Nov. 3 balloting and Inauguration Day on Jan. 20 — and no doubt beyond.
Nobody made a bigger bet on Trump in 2016 than Russian President Vladimir Putin. Trump, for whatever mysterious reasons, has let Putin run full throttle. He doesn’t challenge Putin’s election interference, his reported bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, or even what U.S. and foreign officials tell me is Russia’s willingness to attack its enemies anywhere, even on U.S. soil, much as intelligence defector Sergei Skripal was poisoned in Britain in March 2018.
Putin signals occasional interest in cooperative diplomacy with Trump, on controlling nuclear weapons and stopping the war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. But if Trump is on the way out, how does Putin consolidate the gains he’s made during the Trump years? Containing this reckless Russia is necessary, whoever wins.
North Korea, too, placed a big bet on Trump. The “love letters” between Trump and Kim Jong Un and the showy summits may have suggested to Kim that he could have it all — economic development without full denuclearization. Kim this year has been relatively restrained on nuclear and missile testing, refraining even on the 75th anniversary of his ruling party on Oct. 10. But if Biden is elected, will a petulant Kim want to send a defiant message? Watch that space.
China stroked Trump for his first year but ended up on his enemies list, anyway. The Chinese are playing a long game, with ambitions that transcend particular administrations. But it’s noteworthy that before the U.S. election, Beijing has been signaling its “red lines” regarding Taiwan. That’s another crisis waiting to happen, post-election, if the Chinese decide to assert their interests during an interregnum, when the United States is preoccupied.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan deftly massaged Trump’s ego as he projected Turkish military power in Syria, Iraq, Libya and now Azerbaijan. The Turkish leader was so aggressive in filling the vacuum Trump opened that he angered even the Trump team. A new administration might place sanctions on Turkey. But Erdogan will remain a master of Trump-style bullying tactics even if Trump is gone.
When it comes to mutual back-scratching, Trump’s relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman may top the list. Trump boasted that after the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, “I saved his ass” by maintaining congressional support for the kingdom, according to Bob Woodward’s book, “Rage.” Supporters of MBS, as the Saudi leader is known, have recently spun a fanciful theory that Democrats plotted a coup against him; perhaps they wanted to mobilize Saudis against pressure from a Biden administration. If U.S.-Saudi ties weaken with a Biden victory, Russia and China (and in a different way, Iran) may seek to exploit the vacuum.
Trump’s prime target overseas has been Iran, which is probably the country hoping most fervently for his defeat. Iran has been cautious in the months before election, waiting for a new American administration that might reengage Tehran and revive the nuclear agreement Trump trashed. But Biden isn’t likely to be a pushover on Iran, and the Iranians may seek leverage through aggressive moves, post-election.
When the United States is distracted or in transition, foreign nations can make mischief. It’s not an October surprise we should be worrying about anymore, but a November, December or January one.