The world is fascinated by Donald Trump, just as blindsided as many Americans are about his rise and nearly at a loss to understand what he would do as president.
Foreign-policy elites around the globe speak of Trump as a loose cannon, a “roller coaster,” ”unpredictable,” ”dangerous” and, perhaps above all, a “mystery.”
But they can’t avert their gaze from a Republican presidential race that turns on the billionaire’s every word.
“Donald Trump makes me laugh a lot,” said Felipe Algorta Brit, a member of the lower house of Uruguay’s parliament. “If he wins the presidency, everybody will cry.”
The hand-wringing is not universal. Some analysts saw hints in Trump’s foreign policy speech this week that he would take a reasoned approach in office, his out-there instincts curbed by the realities of government. Others think that under Trump, relations with China and Arabs might improve.
And Trump is no outlier in contending the United States is too entangled abroad.
If there is a dominant thread in Trump’s speeches, said Peter Trubowitz at the London School of Economics and Political Science, it’s that “the U.S. needs to scale back in its international commitments, and that those commitments have been too much of a one-way street, favoring America’s allies.”
“Trump is a mystery,” said Yoaz Hendel, a former spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. “Trump fires in all directions and makes lots of contradictory statements. This terminological roller coaster does not bode well for Israel.”
Russians are similarly wary, despite Trump’s conviction that he and President Vladimir Putin could do some “great deals” together.
Trump “is unpredictable and may change his position 180 degrees,” cautioned Sergei Rogov, a specialist on the U.S. at the Russian Academy of Science.
“With Trump,” said Danish Foreign Minister Kristian Jensen, “it is really like drawing a ticket in the lottery.”
Mideast, Pro and Con
“I honestly believe he will take the world to a deplorable state of affairs,” said Iraqi lawmaker Muwaffak al-Rubaie.
Emad el-Din Hussein, editor in chief of Shrouk, a leading Cairo newspaper, said Trump would be the “best gift” to the Islamic State because his presidency would strengthen violent anti-Western sentiment in the Middle East.
Yet some in the Arab world, noting Trump’s suggestion that he would be more neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than his predecessors, said he might be better placed to broker a peace deal.
Mustafa Alani of the Gulf Research Center in Geneva said many politicians and elites in the Middle East are unhappy with President Barack Obama and “are ready to take a risk on Trump.”
Europe: Already “Mistrust”
Trump’s opposition to sweeping free trade deals could doom a proposed trade agreement between the U.S. and the European Union.
And Trump has said the “obsolete” NATO alliance must pay greater attention to terrorism and questioned whether it makes sense for Washington to keep guaranteeing the security of allies he called “freeloaders.”
Bruno Lete of the German Marshall Fund, a Brussels-based think-tank, agrees Europeans should do more to defend themselves. But he said Trump’s talk about NATO, the backbone of U.S. foreign and defense policy for almost 70 years, is damaging.
“Mr. Trump’s rhetoric has already created among the European partners a sense of mistrust and skepticism,” Lete said. “I am afraid Mr. Trump’s first job would have to be to build trust on this side of the pond, and that’s bad news for the trans-Atlantic partnership.”
Germany’s foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, said it’s unclear how Trump’s “make America great again” slogan fits with his wish to pull back on foreign commitments.
Trump’s positions “aren’t entirely free of contradictions,” Steinmeier said diplomatically. His agenda “doesn’t seem to be entirely spelled out yet.”
Nicolas Bouchet, who researches Europe at the German Marshall Fund, was blunt: “A President Trump would ignite anti-Americanism across Europe.”
Mexico and Latin America
Former Mexican leaders have voiced rage at his proposals to build a border wall at Mexico’s expense, rectify what he’s called a rip-off of U.S. jobs and crack down on immigrants he’s branded criminals.
Peter Schechter, who researches Latin America at the Atlantic Council, said a Trump presidency could dampen trade with all of Latin America.
He said Trump’s statement that he might tax or restrict remittances Mexican immigrants send home has raised alarm in other countries that rely on payments by U.S.-based workers, such as Honduras and El Salvador.
In the End, Realpolitik?
Trump promises to defend U.S. economic interests much more aggressively — in particular by getting tough on China, which he accuses of unfair competition.
But Chinese leaders expect him to moderate his positions if he assumes office, in part because of pressure from U.S. companies doing business in China, said Zhao Kejin, a specialist in international relations at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Zhao said ties might improve, as they historically have done during Republican administrations back to Richard Nixon.
“Chairman Mao (Zedong) once said he preferred to deal with the Republicans rather than the Democrats,” Zhao said.
Josef Braml of the German Council on Foreign Relations said Trump’s foreign policy speech suggested he was seeking stability, interested in “making ‘deals’ with autocrats and engaging in realpolitik.”
New Zealand Prime Minister John Key said, “I take all of the slogans that are made on the campaign trail with a grain of salt.”
But Mats Karlsson, director of the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, contends harm has already been done.
Trump’s vow to walk away from the table if he’s not getting his way would make agreements on conflicts, trade or the climate more difficult, he said, and “will make anyone on the other side of the table look for long-term solutions that are less dependent on the U.S.”
“Trump is weakening the U.S. position even as he campaigns,” he said. “Even as we wait for the outcome of the election, the prospects for a rules-based world order are eroding.”