London/Washington — America’s allies and rivals face a tough choice as Donald Trump trails in polls ahead of November’s presidential election: Wait to see if he loses to presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden, or cut deals now to avoid negotiating with an emboldened second-term Trump.
The president addressed that dilemma himself in a tweet celebrating the release of an American prisoner, Michael White, from Iran earlier this month.
“Don’t wait until after U.S. Election to make the Big deal,” Trump wrote. “I’m going to win. You’ll make a better deal now!”
The administration wielded the same warnings when pressing the World Health Organization during the global Covid-19 pandemic for changes in order to get American funding flowing again, according to a person familiar with the discussions.
The demand was the same, the person said: commit to reforms aimed at improving transparency and eradicating a perceived bias toward China, or expect to make more painful concessions if Trump is re-elected.
We are still letting pandemic politics divide us and make us less safe. We can be better than that!
I will say it once again: Quarantine #COVID19 politics!
— Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus (@DrTedros) June 14, 2020
German Chancellor Angela Merkel may already have tasted the risks of snubbing the White House. Days after she refused Trump’s invitation to a G-7 summit he wanted to hold outside Washington this month, the administration announced plans to withdraw a quarter of U.S. troops currently stationed in Germany.
Trump said he made that call because Germany still wasn’t on track to meet its commitment as a North Atlantic Treaty Organization member to spend 2% of gross domestic product on defense by 2024. Merkel, meanwhile, attributed her refusal to come to the U.S. to the pandemic, saying it was too early for an in-person meeting like the one Trump proposed.
For the time being, countries appear to be holding off on deals with the Trump administration, or sticking to their guns in case a Biden administration softens the American stance. South Korea, for example, is still resisting U.S. demands to pay far more to host the 28,000 U.S. troops stationed on the peninsula, while several European countries are vowing to move ahead with plans to tax tech companies despite a U.S. threat to retaliate with tariffs.
“A lot of countries in Europe and Asia will hide behind Covid-19 and hit the pause button, saying it is too difficult to do business as usual,” says John Chipman, director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank. With the pandemic unlikely to really wind down before October, that time scale dovetails with the U.S. election.
The Trump administration’s domestic response to the coronavirus and recent anti-racism protests may also see foreign capitals choose to wait. Trump’s defense secretary and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff both issued statements this month committing to protecting the U.S. Constitution, thinly veiled rebukes to the president’s ideas of assuming federal control to impose order by force.
The rare impression of a U.S. president at public odds with his armed forces was underscored when former military leaders, including Jim Mattis, his first Secretary of Defense, spoke out to condemn Trump more directly. Mattis’s comments have a special resonance abroad — until his resignation in 2019 he traveled widely to persuade allies that America’s institutions were strong enough to withstand Trump.
“All these events taken together will have raised a question as to whether it’s worth investing a lot more in the Trump presidency,” Chipman said.