© 2024 Wyoming Public Media
800-729-5897 | 307-766-4240
Wyoming Public Media is a service of the University of Wyoming
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Transmission & Streaming Disruptions

Trump could — and wants to — shake up U.S. foreign policy even more in a second term

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Sunday in Las Vegas.
John Locher
/
AP
Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally Sunday in Las Vegas.

It was not that long ago that former President Donald Trump made international headlines at a primary election rally in South Carolina.

At the event, Trump recalled an unnamed European leader asking whether the U.S. would defend the country if it was invaded by Russia — even if they had not met NATO spending targets.

“‘No, I would not protect you. In fact, I would encourage them to do whatever the hell they want,’” Trump remembered saying. “You got to pay. You got to pay your bills.”

It was a stunning admission that was seen as a shot across the bow to European allies — and the foreign policy establishment, including people like former Obama-era Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder.

“The statement was less about the threat that allowing Russia to do whatever it wanted would mean for the countries involved and more about what it says about Trump's view of alliances,” Daalder said.

The former president’s criticism of NATO — and the U.S. allies who are part of the alliance — is not new. He often referred to the spending targets outlined in charter agreements as requirements and derided countries for not paying enough.

He’s been critical of western allies and cozied up to authoritarian leaders, like Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Hungary’s Viktor Orbán.

But Daalder’s larger point, which is being echoed across party lines, is that Trump is reducing the importance of a 75-year alliance to the U.S. being an army for hire — and that NATO isn’t something that is fundamental to U.S. security.

“A Trump return to the Oval Office means that an alliance like NATO, which is built fundamentally on trust, will suffer because people will not be able to trust Donald Trump to defend them if and when the emergency arises,” Daalder said.

What is new is the second generation approach to foreign policy by this battle-hardened Trump who has both the experience in the White House and a chip on his shoulder to take what he started in his first administration — and take it even further.

Now, Trump has promised to fundamentally reevaluate the NATO alliance, reshape global trade and overhaul the Pentagon, State Department and intelligence services.

He has largely avoided explaining how he’d handle the conflicts in Europe and the Middle East, yet claims he can settle the war in Ukraine in 24 hours.

Foreign policy 2.0

From the campaign trail, Trump’s raised concerns that the U.S. is paying too much to support Ukraine.

He’s promised again to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accords.

And he has floated the idea of a 10% tax on imports from all countries and a much higher tax on China, echoing at rallies that “China is eating our lunch,” to groans and applause.

John Simon, who served as ambassador to the African Union in the Bush administration, worries Trump will dismantle key tenets of American foreign policy, including standing up to totalitarian aggression.

“My great fear is that a second Trump administration would have all the hallmarks of his first administration without any of the guardrails that were provided by the more experienced foreign policy folks who are around him,” Simon said. “He would be like a child without any parents to stop him from doing really bad things.”

The view from Europe

In this file photo, then-President Donald Trump, center, gestures as he walks off the podium after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting in Watford, Hertfordshire, England on Dec. 4, 2019. Trump says he once warned that he would allow Russia to do whatever it wants to NATO member nations that are “delinquent” in devoting 2% of their gross domestic product to defense.
Peter Nicholls / AP/Reuters Pool
/
AP/Reuters Pool
In this file photo, then-President Donald Trump, center, gestures as he walks off the podium after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting in Watford, Hertfordshire, England on Dec. 4, 2019. Trump says he once warned that he would allow Russia to do whatever it wants to NATO member nations that are “delinquent” in devoting 2% of their gross domestic product to defense.

Depending on who you ask — and where — Trump’s return can elicit excitement, trepidation and even fear across the European continent.

Nathalie Tocci, a former top EU foreign policy adviser, says Trump had a “fairly unifying effect on Europe,” during his first term.

At the time, leaders rallied together during his first administration as the U.S. seemed to check out from the transatlantic relationship.

But the political landscape changed. European parliamentary elections this week saw a rise in far right parties.

Trump’s election could inflame those divisions. And Tocci said the potential of a second term has some keeping their heads in the sand, unable or unwilling to face that prospect again.

“So it's more like, you know, this kind of fear of something that is happening and you think is going to happen and you're more and more convinced that it will happen,” she said. “But it's so scary that you just prefer not to think about it.”

Without mentioning Trump’s name, President Biden nodded to some of those concerns while traveling in France last week for the 80th anniversary of D-Day.

“Isolationism was not the answer 80 years ago and is not the answer today,” Biden said.

Trump remains unconcerned

Trump has dismissed the criticism, blaming Biden and the foreign policy establishment for creating a more dangerous world.

Bryan Lanza, a former Trump aide who remains close to the campaign, says Trump was right to challenge NATO members to step up their defense contributions.

“The criticisms that exist here from the foreign policy community, you know, those are criticisms because they don't want change,” Lanza said.

It’s impossible to predict Trump’s exact policies, which has increased feelings of uncertainty.

Still, Heather Conley, who worked on European issues in the Bush State Department, says it’s important to remember that many of the policies will be the same whether it’s Biden or Trump.

“I often tell European colleagues there is more continuity to U.S. policy than we sometimes suggest because we personalize this,” she said. “And these personalities certainly have different approaches to allies very specifically.”

As examples, she points to similarities in Biden and Trump’s trade agenda and how Biden maintained the Abraham Accords, a key Trump victory.

Both leaders kept a strong relationship with Israel and a hawkish approach to China.

Despite the differences in personalities oftentimes the status quo wins out over rhetoric.

“Underneath, sometimes the policy can look awfully similar,” Conley explained. “And so they’re going to have to deal with the substance of that - with some exceptions - regardless of who is in the White House.”

Copyright 2024 NPR

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.
Related Content