Near the end of an off-the-record gathering of current U.S. ambassadors posted around the world at the State Department this week, one career envoy stood up and finally voiced what they’d all been buzzing about among themselves.
“How do you expect us to answer the questions we’re all getting in our host countries about this campaign?” the ambassador asked Secretary of State John Kerry. “They’re asking us, ‘Do you realize how irresponsible it is for this political discourse to occur in the United States, and to be heard around the world?’ How do we answer that?”
Foreign ambassadors here in Washington have likewise moved in three months from incredulity to alarm at the prospect of a Donald Trump presidency. “Are American voters really going to choose someone who knows so little about the world, and is so belligerent about it?” one European ambassador asked me. Off the record, of course.
From overseas newspapers and commentators comes the same consternation. The German magazine Der Spiegel’s Jan. 30 cover featured a blow-up of Trump’s face headlined: ” Madness: America’s rabble-rouser Donald Trump.”
— Mathieu von Rohr (@mathieuvonrohr) January 29, 2016
Longtime Financial Times columnist Martin Wolf warned the U.S. is in danger of being hijacked by a “narcissistic bully,” and that a Trump election “would be global disaster.” The British-based Economist’s take: “Trump’s America: Why the Donald is Dangerous.”
But is it fair? Apart from the crudeness of some of Trump’s rhetoric, what really bothers them about what a Trump presidency would mean for America’s role in the world?
The fact is, they can’t be sure. A businessman with no foreign experience except overseas business deals, Trump hasn’t laid out a comprehensive policy on any of the pressing issues the next president will face: the rise of the Islamic State group and terror, the Middle East cracking at the seams, Vladimir Putin’s resurgent Russia, China muscling its neighbors in the region. The primary season debates haven’t dug deeply into the topic either.
So all international observers have to go on is Trump’s rhetoric, his one-off comments about building a wall with Mexico, renegotiating trade deals, letting Russia take care of IS in the Middle East, reviving waterboarding “and worse,” and cutting back on U.S. troop commitments in Europe and the Gulf unless host countries pay freight. But foreigners don’t find a reassuring picture.
“This is a Mel Brooks version of an election campaign, except it’s deadly serious,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, formerly of The German Marshall Fund in Berlin, now with the Brookings Institution in Washington. Above all, she said, Germans are disturbed by echoes they hear of 20th century fascism in Europe, from Hitler to Mussolini. And they hear in Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric the views of far right parties in Europe today, whipping up fears of Muslim immigrants flooding their continent. An American president joining that chorus will “just inflame the trend,” she said.
Stelzenmüller admits she’s surprised Trump has come this far. “Somehow, we thought America was ‘too big to fail’ … That your social contract and representative democracy were so robust that this turn to extremism couldn’t happen here,” she said.
She pointed to a litany of Trump statements that make Europeans insecure: “his dismissive comments about NATO and U.S.-European trade deals … not to mention his praise for Vladimir Putin.”
The reaction in Washington’s oldest ally, the U.K., is equally negative. Foreign leaders rarely comment on U.S. candidates they may ultimately have to work with, but Prime Minister David Cameron told the House of Commons late last year, “if he came to visit our country, I think he would unite us all against him.”
Cameron’s also criticized on pragmatic grounds Trump’s proposal to temporarily ban all Muslims from entering the United States. Trump’s oft-repeated proposal “actually helps the extremists,” Cameron said, “because they want to create a clash of civilizations between Islam and Christianity. … it actually makes the work we need to do to confront and defeat extremists more difficult.”
David Rennie, Washington bureau chief of the Economist, who in September did by far the most extensive interview with Trump on his international views, returned to Stelzenmüller’s theme. Europeans are frightened by what he called Trump’s “strongman persona and politics … his xenophobia and contempt for the rule of law.” Europeans are haunted by their own past, he explained. “Americans don’t seem unnerved when they see a swaggering strongman on stage surrounded by thuggish crowd, wildly cheering when he talks of rounding up people and sending them home.” He said. “But in Europe, we have seen this before, and it sets our nerves jangling.”
In policy terms, he detects am unnerving isolationism in Trump — as in comments he made in the interview that China’s aggressive island-building in the South China Sea is for Japan and other neighbors to sort out. “That suggests to our Asian allies they’ll have to face China alone,” he said.
Continuing around the globe, Arab countries have a mixed view. Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of Al Arabiya television, gives me a quick tour. They are offended by Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric — “Islam hates us” — and his comment that Gulf allies are among those ripping off America: “We back it at tremendous expense,” Trump said. “And we get nothing for it.” This rhetoric makes the Arab Middle East fear Trump will withdraw the U.S. from the region.
“What also scares people is the recklessness of saying he’d bar all Muslims based on their religion, and seize the oil fields of ISIS, which actually don’t belong to ISIS” Melhem said. “So far no journalists have asked him, ‘What about the U.S. Constitution? What about international law?’”
The only Trump view that’s been viewed positively among Arab states is his declaration that he would be “neutral” in negotiating an Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
In Israel, understandably, that view is not popular. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who supported Obama’s Republican challenger Mitt Romney in 2012, invited Trump to visit in December. But after the candidate’s comments about banning Muslims, he withdrew the invitation. “I’m told that Bibi didn’t want to be associated with that,” said the well-connected David Makovsky, formerly of the Jerusalem Post, now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. But it’s Trump’s lack of experience that most worries Israelis, Makovsky explained. “They live in a tough neighborhood, so Israelis don’t want an American president who needs on-the-job training,” he said. “Because they have to play six-dimensional chess in a very complicated Middle East, they want someone who knows how to play chess.”
And then there are our neighbors to the south. Mexican President Search Results Enrique Peña Nieto said there’s no way his government will pay for Trump’s wall between the two countries. And he went further, likening Trump to Hitler and Mussolini in proposing “very easy, simple solutions to problems that are obviously not that easy to solve,” expressed in “strident rhetoric (that) have only led to very ominous situations in the history of humanity.”
I asked one career U.S. ambassador in Latin America to sum up what troubled the officials he deals with about Trump. “I hear one word — reckless. People are afraid that he will be as reckless with the instruments of national power — military, economic and diplomatic — as he is with his words. They’re afraid he’ll do what he says, like deport 11 million mostly Latin people, or build the wall with Mexico.”
There’s plenty of time yet. But clearly, unless Trump doesn’t care about international opinion or alliances, if he becomes the Republican nominee, he has a lot of work to do with our allies.
Trump’s views will become more developed, supporters say, once he gets a team of experienced foreign and defense advisers — a list he’s promised but not yet produced. But so far, Trump insists he gets a lot of his information from “the shows” on TV. And from himself. “I’m speaking with myself, number one, because I have a very good brain,” he said on Wednesday, on “Morning Joe.” “My primary consultant is myself and I have a good instinct for this stuff.”
Editor’s note: The language in the photo caption has been updated. The story refers to U.S. ambassadors stationed around the world, not foreign ambassadors stationed in D.C. That was an editing error.