Substantively, he will double down on his instincts, leaning into ideas he had before he became president. He could pull the plug on NATO entirely by refusing to defend Germany, France, and other selected countries under the mutual-defense clause. He could make this decision unilaterally, without authorization from Congress, as it simply entails altering a presidential interpretation of the purposefully vague NATO founding treaty.
He’s already tried to withdraw troops from South Korea in his first term. But he could make it happen in his second by entering into a peace treaty with North Korea. His first comments on foreign policy in the 1980s were criticisms of Japan, but earlier in his first term he modified his long-standing hostility because of his friendship with Shinzo Abe, which the then–prime minister carefully cultivated. Now, with Abe out of the picture, Trump could revert to Japan-bashing and questioning the alliance with Japan itself. Both of these steps could weaken U.S. competitiveness with China.
China is the big unknown in a second Trump term. The Republican foreign-policy establishment hopes that rivalry with China will be the organizing principle of U.S. foreign policy. If Trump buys into that stance, then these officials might use that to make the case for their preferred positions toward the Middle East (stay engaged to keep China out), on Europe (get NATO on board against China), and on economics (trade with your friends to compete with China). But no one knows whether Trump will support this agenda or whether he will pivot back to a much narrower form of competition with Beijing, one focused solely on economics while pulling back from America’s alliances.
The second part of the pincer movement—how the rest of the world will react—is also important in a second term. America’s allies and adversaries took a deep breath after the 2016 election. They did not know if Trump’s win was a temporary blip or a permanent change—indeed, this is the top question most foreign governments have had about the United States over the past four years, because it is so consequential to their future. Before the coronavirus hit, most allied foreign officials I spoke with tentatively thought that Trump would win a second term. Now, like almost everyone else, they see him as the underdog. If he wins again, friend and foe alike will accept that the post–World War II period of American leadership has come to a definitive end. The effect will vary from country to country. Some allies may cut deals with China and Russia. A small number could seek an independent nuclear deterrent. All will prepare for a world with less cooperation.
William J. Burns: ‘America First’ enters its most combustible moment
The coronavirus makes matters much worse. Many now widely accept that ordinary life will not return until a reliable vaccine is developed and widely distributed. The global economy is still teetering on the brink, rocked by the virus and the rivalry between the United States and China. Cooperation, particularly between the U.S. and Europe, has ground to a halt. The Trump administration’s priority is to signal its “America First” bona fides to its base rather than to build an international coalition to tackle shared problems. In a second Trump term, foreign countries can expect no coordination on the global economic recovery, the development of a vaccine, the repair of international institutions, or aid for those that were destabilized by the crisis. Openness—in terms of travel and trade—will not return to what passed for normal before the coronavirus. Every nation will have to fend for itself. The European Union and a handful of other democracies may try to keep the multilateral order alive, but it will become a relic, largely irrelevant to world events.