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Inflection Points Today January 25, 2024

How the prospect of a second Trump presidency is already shaping geopolitics

By Frederick Kempe

In Davos last week, Harvard University’s Graham Allison was making waves talking about how former US President Donald Trump was already shaping allies’ and adversaries’ policy choices. With Trump’s New Hampshire primary victory this week, that influence will only increase.

“Some foreign governments are increasingly factoring into their relationship with the United States what may come to be known as the ‘Trump put’—delaying choices in the expectation they will be able to negotiate better deals with Washington a year from now because Trump will effectively establish a floor on how bad things can get for them,” writes Allison in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs.

At the top of this list of foreign officials strategically watching the upcoming US election is Russian President Vladimir Putin, who is calculating that his chances in the Ukraine war (which Trump has promised to end “in one day”) could improve dramatically. That expectation drives Putin to play for stalemate this year while wagering on European and American fatigue in addition to Trump’s election, which might set the Russian leader up for victory thereafter.

“Others, by contrast,” writes Allison, “are beginning to search for what might be called a ‘Trump hedge’—analyzing the ways in which his return will likely leave them with worse options and preparing accordingly.”

Count in this camp Ukraine and its European NATO supporters. There’s a healthy side to this, as European countries are looking for better ways to defend Ukraine and themselves.

The downside? Trump’s campaign website calls for “fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission,” so existing NATO members and new ones—Finland and soon Sweden—may find alliance security guarantees less secure.

Look around the world, and you’ll find dozens of examples of the Trump hedge and put—from climate-related issues to trade matters, where the former president describes himself as “the Tariff Man,” promising to impose a ten percent duty on all imports.

“This year promises to be a year of danger as countries around the world watch US politics with a combination of disbelief, fascination, horror, and hope,” writes Allison.

What he doesn’t write is that perhaps never in the past have the United States’ allies and adversaries begun to hedge and put this far ahead of our elections. The consistency of US foreign policy across the Cold War years is becoming a thing of the past.

What one national leader in Davos told me he misses most regarding relations with the United States is the degree of predictability needed to make his country’s own policies. “It’s not good or bad,” he said, “it’s just the reality that is our starting point.”

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter: @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: President Donald Trump delivers his Acceptance Speech to the 2020 Republican National Convention on the South Lawn of the White House on August 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA)