Europe stares, cluelessly, into Trump crystal ball
European diplomats on both sides of the Atlantic are scrambling to figure out who has U.S. president-elect Donald Trump’s ear on foreign policy and how he sees America’s role in the world.
EU foreign ministers will hold their first discussion of the shock U.S. election result in Brussels on Sunday night, during what diplomats have dubbed a “panic dinner,” ahead of more formal talks on European foreign and defense policy on Monday and Tuesday.
“We would never have had a similar dinner if Hillary Clinton had been elected. It shows just how much we’re panicking,” said a diplomat from one of the smaller EU states.
Their concerns range from existential issues, like Trump’s skepticism about free trade and NATO, aggressive tone toward China and his warm words for Russia’s Vladimir Putin, to more detailed concerns: Where does the man who’s pledged to put “America First” stand on issues like the Armenian genocide, Arctic policy or EU enlargement? Trump has never held elected office before, and his career in real estate and on reality TV provides little guidance.
“This has probably been one of the most unknown candidates,” said Andris Teikmanis, Latvia’s ambassador to Washington. Diplomats are reluctant to draw too many conclusions from Trump’s provocative remarks on the campaign trail, hoping for a “more rational, concrete and concise” tone during the transition.
“There’s a great deal of anxiety … This is really for us a largely unknown group.”
The European Commission is “eager to reach out to the transition team,” said a EU senior official. The Commission had no contact with the Trump team during the campaign and, for now, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini “isn’t in a position to debrief ministers on what the Trump administration wants,” the official added.
If Hillary Clinton had won, foreign governments would have had a wealth of evidence from her years in the Senate and term as secretary of state, not to mention a posse of advisers so vast that Foreign Policy magazine wrote: “Officials in the Clinton campaign cannot offer a definitive estimate of its size.”
Not so with Trump, a political rookie whose foreign dealings have been purely commercial. “It’s not possible to go through the history and infer,” said one former foreign minister from eastern Europe. “There’s no such record and no such thinking. [Trump] has never thought about a lot of the nitty-gritty.”
Who’ll advise him?
Heather Conley, the Europe director at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said foreign embassies in Washington had tried to make contact with Trump’s team during the campaign, but failed. “There’s a great deal of anxiety,” she said. “This is really for us a largely unknown group.”
As Trump started to pull ahead of Clinton in the vote-counting last Tuesday, one EU diplomat in Washington made some simple assumptions in an email to POLITICO: “U.S.-EU relationship to be tested. A more assertive role of Russia under Trump. It’s too early to make any further presumptions.”
Others countries with more narrowly defined concerns are even more clueless. Consider Armenia. Despite the size of the Armenian expat community in the United States, there’s no record of Trump having made any statements ever about the Armenian genocide, for example. While incoming vice president Mike Pence and Clinton and her running mate Tim Kaine are all on the record addressing Armenian concerns, according to the Armenian National Committee of America’s website, it draws a blank on the next president.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel walks next to Russian President Vladimir Putin. EU diplomats have concerns on issues like Trump’s warm words for Putin | Stephane de Sakutin/AFP via Getty
Likewise Georgia, which would like American to defend its independence from Russia, has little to work with, according to Tedo Japaridze, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s foreign relations committee and formerly served as ambassador in Washington. “I cannot be critical or positive about Trump, because he didn’t say anything about us, and I don’t know really who his advisors are,” Japaridze said.
There are now emerging indications of who Trump’s top advisors may be — Newt Gingrich, for instance, is a top contender for secretary of state. But diplomats are eager for information about the supporting roles, with whom their Washington embassy staff with have to deal with on a daily basis. On the campaign trail, questions from reporters on who was advising the candidate on foreign policy went unanswered, even when it came to individuals such as Carter Page, who was widely believed to be his advisor on Russia.
“Either it seemed to be a bunch of retired second-rank army officers that nobody has ever heard of, or he’s said ‘I don’t need advisors because I got all the judgement I need and all the advice I need is in my own head,’” said another former European ambassador.
The running joke among diplomats was that the most likely candidate for secretary of state under Trump would be David Sanger, a longtime reporter for the New York Times who had two headline-making interviews on foreign affairs with the Republican candidate.
“Sanger spent more time discussing foreign policy with Trump than anybody else on this planet,” said the former ambassador.