Foreign Policy

The 'Trump Effect': Allies and Adversaries Adapt to Uncertainty

"He may have been right that a lack of predictability can work in the favor of the United States."

Russia and China are assessing their new frenemy, Trump.

Photographer: HOW HWEE YOUNG/AFP/Getty Images

During the presidential campaign, many foreign ambassadors quietly warned that a Donald Trump presidency would be a disaster.

It's easy to see why. As Robert Kagan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and a Clinton supporter, put it in a column over the weekend, Trump's victory marks the end of America as the anchor of a liberal international order.

This was certainly how the president-elect campaigned. On the trail, Trump shattered the bipartisan foreign policy consensus on issues ranging from the NATO alliance to the prohibition of torture. He mused about a nuclear Japan and boasted he knew more than the generals.

So one might expect that after Trump's victory, U.S. allies and adversaries would begin exploring new relationships in a post-American world. It's early days, but this is not yet apparent. Instead, America's friends and foes are exploring whether Trump is a man with whom they can do business -- someone they can meet half way.

On the adversary side, the clearest example is Russia. The Kremlin has signaled it's open to a new relationship with the U.S. under Trump, even as it increases the pace of its bombardment of Aleppo in Syria.

The Chinese are also sending out feelers now to Trump to see whether they can get along with a man who has railed for years about China's predations against the U.S. economy. One former senior Republican defense official told me that last week former Chinese foreign policy officials had a dinner with a group of Republican former officials, where the Chinese side said Beijing wanted a constructive relationship with Trump and would be open to new kinds of military-to-military cooperation.

This message stands in contrast to the Chinese readout of the phone call between Trump and President Xi Jinping. As Bloomberg reported last week, Xi reminded Trump that Republican presidents had pressed his country to tackle climate change and that this was not a Chinese-invented hoax, as the president-elect has tweeted.

The account of the dinner does, however, track with what many observers are seeing from foreign governments since Trump won the election. Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and a member of the executive committee for the Trump transition, told me there has been a "Trump effect" in this respect.  

He said he has talked to senior officials from a dozen allied nations since Election Day. "I tell them what the president-elect tells me," Nunes said. "He wants tough, serious people. They are asking the basic questions. They are scrambling to find out what this new administration will be like and who is going to be in the top posts." But Nunes said allies' main message to him is to see whether there are new chances for cooperation with the next president they never imagined would actually win the election.  

The Trump effect is visible in NATO, the alliance that was forged in 1949 to contain the Soviet Union and remains a bulwark against Vladimir Putin's Russia. For years, the U.S. has prodded its European allies to pay their fair share -- 2 percent of gross national product -- for defense in the trans-Atlantic alliance. But despite these pleas, the big European states continued to cut their military budgets, even though newer members like the Baltic countries did pay their share.

There are signs this may be changing. As a candidate, Trump complained about NATO countries failing to make good on their financial commitments to the alliance. On the sidelines this weekend of the Halifax International Security Forum, Rose Gottemoeller, the new deputy secretary general for NATO, told me: "Frankly during the campaign, we in Brussels welcomed the Trump team and President-elect Trump's insistence on this point because it has caused a lot of allies to sit up and take notice."

Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, the president of NATO member Croatia, echoed this sentiment. "I also expect to do more with my own country in terms of defense investment," she told me in an interview Saturday.

When it comes to NATO, there is a hope at least from Grabar-Kitarovic and Gottemoeller that Trump will also clarify his understanding of the obligations of the NATO charter, particularly Article 5, the treaty's mutual-defense clause. The language of Article 5 is not an automatic trigger. It says that each member will take "such action as it deems necessary, including the use of armed force, to restore and maintain the security of the North Atlantic area," if it is invoked.

This ambiguity has led past U.S. presidents to be more precise. For example in 2014, Obama traveled to Estonia and said the small Baltic state's independence "will always be guaranteed by the strongest military alliance the world has ever known." Trump told the New York Times in July that U.S. defense of NATO states should be contingent on whether the country shouldered its fair share of the defense burden.

"I think that everyone needs a reassurance," the Croatian president told me. "Article 5 is the backbone of the alliance."

It remains to be seen whether Trump will reassure NATO and other allies when he is president. But so far, many conservative foreign policy elites who were critical of Trump's approach in the campaign have become willing to give the next president a chance.

Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser under George W. Bush who supported Marco Rubio and later Ted Cruz in the primaries this year, told me that recalibration from allies and adversaries could be an opportunity. "This uncertainty is good," he said. "To some extent this is the Nixon effect, making people think you are unpredictable. Of course the uncertainty makes our allies very nervous at the same time."

Michael Rubin, who worked in the Pentagon under George W. Bush, said: "Trump is going to interpret the world through the lens of American national interests, rather than broader international altruism. He may have been right that a lack of predictability can work in the favor of the United States."

Kori Schake, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution who also served in the Bush administration, also sees an opening for positive developments with a new Trump foreign policy. "I think it's incumbent for those of us who have supported policies with values at their center to acknowledge they have had little effect on countries like Erdogan's Turkey or Putin's Russia," she said. "Maybe the possibility exists for more productive relationships with them, and that those more productive relationships needn't necessarily signal the collapse of the liberal international order."

Skeptics would say this is a long shot. One of Trump's campaign slogans was "America First," an echo of the isolationists who opposed America's entrance into World War II before Pearl Harbor. Then again, it was a long shot that Trump would win this month's election. America's allies were wrong about that. Now they hope the next president's foreign policy will not be the one he promised.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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    Eli Lake at

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