Two weeks ago, The Washington Post published “A Trump Dictatorship Is Increasingly Inevitable. We Should Stop Pretending,” by Robert Kagan.
Four days later, the Times published “Why a Second Trump Presidency May Be More Radical Than His First,” by Charlie Savage, Jonathan Swan and Maggie Haberman, one in an ongoing series of articles.
On the same day, The Atlantic released the online version of its January/February 2024 issue; it included 24 essays under the headline, “If Trump Wins.”
While the domestic danger posed by a second Trump administration is immediate and pressing, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran — sometimes referred to as the “alliance of autocracies” — have an interest in weakening the global influence of the United States and in fracturing its ties to democracies around the globe.
“Clearly, this coalition threatens global security and deterrence and requires policies suited to the assaults Russia and China regularly conduct,” Stephen Blank, a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, writes in a recent column published in The Hill, “The ‘No Limits’ Russo-Chinese Alliance Is Taking Flight.”
In a 2020 essay, Michael O’Hanlon, the director of foreign policy research at Brookings, pointed out that “many Americans” question whether
This conversation, “more than any other,” O’Hanlon writes, “is the debate we need to have as a country.”
If Donald Trump is re-elected, how will the former president — who has openly praised dictators from Vladimir Putin to Xi Jinping, who has questioned the value of NATO and who has denigrated key allies — deal with the “the 4 plus 1 threat matrix — the five main threats of Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, and transnational violent extremism or terrorism”?
To gauge the range of possible developments in a second Trump administration, I asked specialists in international affairs a series of questions. On the basic question — how damaging to American foreign policy interests would a second Trump administration be — the responses ranged from very damaging to marginally so.
Constanze Stelzenmüller, director of the Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings, is quite worried.
Asked if Trump would withdraw from NATO — a major blow to European allies and a massive boost for Vladimir Putin — Stelzenmüller replied by email:
(Article V of the NATO agreement asserts that “the parties agree that an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or North America shall be considered an attack against them.”)
Sumantra Maitra is a visiting senior fellow at Citizens for Renewing America, a pro-Trump think tank. His essay calls for retrenchment of the U.S.’s financial and logistical support of NATO, just short of withdrawal:
Stelzenmüller wrote that she sees little or no chance that a Trump administration would join an alliance of Russia, China, North Korea and other dictatorships, “but would Trump see himself as a friend of the authoritarians? Absolutely.” Under Trump, “the spectrum would clearly shift to a much more transactionalist, pro-authoritarian or even predatory mode. That alone could tip an already fragile world order into chaos.”
Sarah Kreps, a political scientist at Cornell, suggested that “if past is prologue, we could expect Trump to harp on the issue of free riding but not actually do anything different. He’ll probably do a lot of heckling that’s unmatched by actual policy change.”
In this context, Kreps continued, “it will be left to the career diplomats to do the heavy lifting behind the scenes to provide the alliance glue while Trump is hammering the capitals about burden sharing.”
How about NATO?
“The alliance has such deep roots now and has ebbed and flowed in terms of its strength, but the structural factors present right now will be more powerful than any individual president.”
I asked Kreps whether it was conceivable that Trump could join a Russia-China-North Korea coalition.
“Again, past being prologue here, we have good reason to think that he talks friendly to autocrats, but won’t act.”
How would Trump change the role of the United States in foreign affairs?
“I would expect to see more of what we saw in the last administration: a lot of bluster, a lot of braggadocious declarations about how countries are taking the United States seriously now, but not a lot of change.”
Kreps was the least alarmed of those I contacted concerning a second Trump administration.
Philipp Ivanov, a senior fellow at the Asia Society Policy Institute, staked out a middle — but hardly comforting — ground. In an email, he wrote that because of their conflicting interests, “it’s highly unlikely China, Russia, North Korea and Iran will ever form an alliance.”
Instead, he described their ties as “a network of highly transactional bilateral relationships — a marriage of convenience — that lacks basic trust, let alone the kind of common strategic vision and military interconnectedness that characterize the U.S. alliances.”
Their only commonality, Ivanov argued,
The re-election of Trump would, in Ivanov’s view,
Ivanov believes Trump would face insurmountable obstacles if he attempted to withdraw from NATO, but that
Jonathan M. Winer, a former deputy assistant secretary of state for international law enforcement, who is now a scholar at the Middle East Institute, put it this way:
While it is inconceivable that Trump could realign the United States with China, Russia and North Korea, Winer wrote, “what he could do is make the U.S. ‘neutral,’ just as the American First movement professed ‘neutrality’ in relation to the fascist threat prior to Pearl Harbor.”
Some experts pointed out that Trump could make specific policy decisions that might not appear significant to Americans, but which have great consequence for our allies — consequences that could lead in at least one case to further nuclear proliferation.
Bruce Bennett, a senior defense analyst at the RAND Corporation, wrote me in an email that “many in the Republic of Korea national security community are concerned about the North Korean nuclear weapon threat and whether they can really trust the United States security commitment in the aftermath of the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan, which hit the ROK much harder than I think most Americans realize.”
Bennett cited the “fear that if Trump is elected president in 2024, he will talk about removing some U.S. forces from Korea. Whether or not such action actually begins, there is a risk that the Republic of Korea would react to such talk by once again starting a covert nuclear weapon development effort.”
James Lindsay, senior vice president at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring in an email to the perceived threat emanating from the “alliance of autocrats,” observed that
Lindsay argued that
One of the major risks posed by a second Trump administration, Lindsay wrote, is that
Lindsay described decisions and policies Trump may consider:
On a larger scale, it would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which a second Trump term would represent a major upheaval in the tenets underlying postwar American foreign policy.
Mark Medish, is a former senior director of the National Security Council for Russian, Ukrainian and Eurasian Affairs. Medish argued in an email that “Trump’s rise represented a repudiation of the so-called ‘bipartisan consensus.’ For decades during the Cold War, there was a broad agreement in the US elite and our political culture that we had a clear enemy, the U.S.S.R. and the rest of the Communist bloc.”
While there was significant disagreement within this consensus, Medish wrote, “we always knew who the enemy was, whether the Soviet Union or the perpetrators of 9/11.”
During the 2016 campaign and his term in office, according to Medish, Trump
Trump’s re-election, according to Medish, “would provide further evidence — in the eyes of Moscow, Beijing, Pyongyang and Tehran — of U.S. disarray and the decline of the West.”
Medish made the claim that “the challenge for the US/West is less military/economic than political. If the political and institutional center does not hold, the rest does not matter so much.”
Paul Poast, a political scientist at the University of Chicago, forthrightly agreed that “there is absolutely a push against the U.S.-led ‘liberal international order’ and that this push is being led by China, Russia, along with ‘junior partners’ like North Korea and Iran.”
Poast, however, disagreed with many of his colleagues on the prospects for NATO under a second Trump administration.
I asked Robert Kagan what foreign policy might look like in a second Trump administration.
“What will Trump do? Who knows?,” Kagan replied. “Who knows whether Trump himself has a foreign policy.” Trump “will certainly not have pro-liberal prejudices as most previous U.S. presidents have, at least since World War II. He will make common cause with right-wing forces in Europe, as he did in his first term.”
“Trump’s foreign policy will be unpredictable because we haven’t had a dictator as commander in chief. It will be uncharted territory.”
During Trump’s term in office, virtually everyone — his adversaries, his allies, the media — consistently underestimated his willingness to break rules. He is a man without borders, without conscience, without dignity, ethics or integrity, committed only to what he perceives to be in his own interest. He admires dictators who rule without constraint, and if he believes it would be to his advantage to join them, there is nothing — in his mind or his character — that would stop him.
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