5 Nov 2016

How would the world handle President Trump?

Theresa May faces an immediate choice if it’s President Trump next week. Does she put herself at the front of the phone queue and fast through the door, welcoming his election in public like any previous President? Senior officials suspect that’s exactly what she will do, calculating that Mr Trump may retain some affection for the UK and might just listen to an old ally of the US’s. Officials also believe that other G8 and G20 powers might be a bit more squeamish about an early photo opportunity with President Trump, holding back to see how his administration develops, giving early flattery an added weight.

But behind the scenes Whitehall like every other single government in the world is gaming what would President Trump be like and what can be expected in the short and medium term.

When he was Foreign Secretary, Philip Hammond would tell visitors that Mr Trump’s business background suggested to him that as President he would “bluster” and then “settle at 50%.” He was a “deal-maker” and pragmatism might dominate his presidency more than people expected.

One official this week echoed that. He assessed Mr Trump as fundamentally a “deal-maker, a highly transactional individual.” Problem is, of course, that the opening bluster Mr Trump’s made his signature in business and in political campaigning could, in international relations, be a lot more combustible.

One school of thought in government has it that Donald Trump has shown no interest in policy whatsoever and his campaign utterances are just that and no more: tweets and video clips aimed at campaigning which tell you nothing reliable about what he’d do in office.

Much will depend on who surrounds President Trump in the White House and who amongst that team becomes truly close to him. Some four thousand or so people will eventually file in replacing President Obama’s top team in Washington. A small number will actually matter in a Trump presidency and have true influence on a man who is thin-skinned, rejoices in his own intellectual skills and had repeatedly insisted he needs no advice.

Britain’s intelligence agencies will be keeping a wary eye on the U.S’s strategic direction under President Trump.

In July this year Donald Trump openly urged Russia to try to hack Hillary Clinton’s servers. Russia is still the notional target for most UK nuclear weapons in war games, it regularly taunts UK airspace causing RAF jets to be scrambled. Its cyber warfare absorbs huge energy in the UK and beyond and it has attacked the energy supplies of NATO allies. If President Trump looks like he is cosying up to Russia strategically or on a reckless course somewhere else in the world the UK might feel is has to look again at the intelligence sharing arrangements it has with the U.S. One official said that could happen in a discreet, low key restriction of supply rather than any grand announcements.

NATO members more generally are panicked by the lines Trump has taken in the campaign attacking the organisation as defunct and the members as parasites who should cough up for their own defence. One former intelligence chief told me it would be odd if President Putin didn’t take advantage of that posture to test NATO commitment and probe deeper than he has already into Baltic security.

If President Trump followed through on his demand that proxies do their own defence and don’t wait for the U.S. to do it for them, it opens up an extraordinary new chapter in global relations. It raises the possibility of many states lashing out or making threats independent of the U.S. It raises the possibility of states, particularly in Asia, seeking new protective allies like China. After all the noise and thundering, President Trump’s America could be a bit like President Teddy Roosevelt’s old maxim in reverse: America would speak angrily carrying no stick at all.

There’s a piece about Russian involvement in the U.S. Election in today’s FT. As the report says, there’s widespread fear that Russia will try to inject a game-changing last minute scandalous and probably invented claim into the U.S. Election. The FT also reports how the Russian media portrays the U.S. Presidential contenders and the entire U.S. system. In the U.S., some argue, Trump is for many U.S. Voters a Putin style roll of the dice – let’s try a strong man, it can’t be worse – versus Hillary Clinton who is seen as some kind of Brezhnev figure, a tested known approach that is corrupt and clapped out. A reminder of the sort of impulses that mean the world is holding its breath this weekend.

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