It’s the best of times and the worst of times to be a diplomat in the United States.
Under Donald Trump’s presidency, the predictability craved by ambassadors is gone. But that also means diplomatic expertise is needed more than ever — whether it’s to prevent a country’s goals from being trashed with a single presidential tweet, or to blame somebody else when it happens.
These days what the D.C. diplomatic community is thinking about is what happens next. What happens if Trump survives impeachment and is reelected in 2020? The broad conclusion: It would be a geopolitical earthquake.
POLITICO spoke to more than a dozen European diplomats and State Department officials about the possibility of a second Trump term. And while none would go on the record, for fear of drawing White House ire, they were unanimous in their prediction that four more years of Trump would represent a notch up on the Richter scale, making the last few years of instability feel like a light tremor in comparison.
Emboldened by reelection, Trump would be unconstrained by virtually any norm or advice, the diplomats said. A second term would have a “definite disproportionate effect” on global politics, said one. Multilateral systems would likely shatter. A new geopolitical order would emerge. “Surviving another four years will require a very different strategy,” said one Northern European diplomat. “We need to be prepared for a sustained period of retreat” by the U.S.
Many countries are instead focusing their diplomatic efforts on Congress or toward individual states.
At the global level, a second Trump term could mean the outright collapse of institutions like the World Trade Organization, and an economic decoupling from China. At the transatlantic level, today’s disputes over trade and defense would likely escalate, forever changing the relationship between the U.S. and Europe. Many European diplomats also fear that Trump could drag the U.K. further away from the European Union than even some Brexiteers would like.
The concern is not confined to foreign envoys. “As someone who has been in this business for more than 50 years in Washington, I cannot tell you how troubled I am by these prospects that the entire structure of the government system that’s operated for my lifetime and probably for a century before seems to be crumbling,” said Philip Allen Lacovara, a former Watergate prosecutor who made the winning argument in a unanimous 1974 Supreme Court decision that helped lead to President Richard Nixon’s resignation.
Already, diplomats are reorienting their attention in response to the president’s unpredictability. A White House visit was once the ultimate prize. Some now see it as something to be avoided. “Look what happened to the Finnish president,” said one aghast European diplomat, referring to a White House visit by President Sauli Niinistö in early October, when Trump turned a joint press conference into a rally-style tirade against the Ukraine scandal whistleblower and the media, leaving Niinistö visibly uncomfortable. “Who wants that to happen to their leader?” the diplomat added.
According to one State Department official who works with foreign embassies and leaders when they visit the U.S., “every single one walks out disappointed.”
Many countries are instead focusing their diplomatic efforts on Congress or toward individual states. The attendance of the governors of California, Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts and Washington at the United Nations Climate Change summit in 2018 is pointed at as an example of how local or state leaders are increasingly acting as the U.S.’s “new ambassadors.” The trend, say diplomats, will intensify if Trump is reelected.
For Europeans, this means putting more money into investment agencies and roadshows. “Everyone wants to be in Texas,” said a Scandinavian official. The U.K., meanwhile, is focusing on big states like California, and sent its famous Red Arrows — a Royal Airforce aerobatic team — on an 11-week tour across 18 American cities. The effort offers “a unique opportunity to strengthen our partnerships,” said Mark Lancaster, minister for the armed forces.
The EU for its part has embarked on a year-round calendar of state receptions. At its EU-Kentucky reception in September, there was barely enough bourbon to calm the frayed nerves of assembled CEOs and lobbyists facing yet more of Trump’s trade scuffles with the EU. “Business can deal with complexity, but it cannot deal with uncertainty very well,” said one European diplomat. “Everyone is worried we won’t be able to go back to a predictable environment with functioning multilateral rules.”
It’s not all doom and gloom on Washington’s Embassy Row, however. A common view is that if Trump doesn’t kill institutions like the WTO or the EU, he may end up making them stronger, because the other members will have put so much effort into saving and strengthening them.
European diplomats point to their work to save the Paris climate agreement and the Iran nuclear deal, deepened cooperation on European defense and higher turnout at the 2019 European Parliament election as proof of how Trump-fueled uncertainty is changing the EU for the better.
When they’re not watching their backs — most in the D.C. diplomatic community were caught out by assuming Trump could not win in 2016 — they’re left hoping the rest of the world will learn to cope without U.S. support.
Darren Samuelsohn contributed reporting.