Why you should care
Because other countries have a lot riding on this election, too.
When it comes to America’s presidential race this year, “foreign leaders are totally baffled and somewhat horrified,” says John McLaughlin, former CIA deputy director and OZY senior contributor. “What they’ve seen unfold is not the America they’re accustomed to dealing with.”
Which makes for tricky planning as foreign leaders try to figure out how their agencies will handle the next U.S. administration. As someone who regularly travels overseas and meets with those plugged in with governments abroad, McLaughlin has seen how they’re getting ready for either a Donald Trump or a Hillary Clinton presidency.
How are foreign leaders and their governments preparing differently for either a Trump or a Clinton victory?
John McLaughlin: Other countries can be critical of us, and sometimes enjoy doing it, but fundamentally they look to the United States for leadership and, whether or not they articulate it this way, as the model democracy. And they simply cannot understand what is going on here. They can’t understand the bitterness of the campaign, the hateful language they’re hearing or how one candidate who seems to have virtually no experience is this competitive. Their planning for a Clinton victory or a Trump victory is inevitably muddled by their simple confusion about what’s going on.
What are their thoughts once they get beyond that confusion?
McLaughlin: Let’s start with Clinton. They are anticipating a fairly conventional, American approach that they can recognize based on their history with us, either through a reflection of what they recall from President Bill Clinton’s administration or as a variation of what they’ve experienced with President Obama. There is not great alarm about Clinton. I don’t know that there’s great comfort, but in their minds, there’s at least predictability.
And with Trump?
McLaughlin: Foreign leaders are almost uniformly negative in that they are appalled by some of the things he said regarding seeming to be prepared to weaken alliances, to interrupt trade deals, to back away from the Iran nuclear deal and to ban categories of people from coming to the United States. We can say to them that this is just campaign rhetoric and elected presidents never do precisely what their campaign foreshadows, but they don’t know that or understand it. Therefore, their planning for a Trump administration is in the category of “hold your breath and wait and see.”
They literally don’t know what to expect. They will wait to see how he approaches policy issues and who his advisers are. A lot of their judgment about both candidates and, to some degree, their planning about how to deal with the United States under either of them will be impacted by who their principal advisers are and who their appointees are, because they know day to day they’re not dealing with the president — they’re dealing with the secretary of defense, the secretary of the Treasury, the secretary of state.
How dangerous is that wait-and-see approach?
McLaughlin: One thought foreign leaders might have is that Trumpism could be contagious. If he were to win, it could be an encouragement to nativist movements in countries like Britain, France, Italy, Germany and some of the Eastern European countries. They all have movements that are flourishing or just beginning to bud that have this same populist flavor. What does populism mean in that sense? Basically, trying to disrupt what have typically been the rules of their systems.
The one favor that Trump has done is to expose and rip the cover off a genuine, serious political, social, economic problem that needs attention in our own country. Clearly, he has brought to light the dissatisfaction and alienation of a large number of our citizens. For foreign leaders, it’s yet another indication that there’s trouble for governance in the world.
Which leaders do you think most prefer a Trump presidency?
McLaughlin: A small number, mostly of an authoritarian bent, have expressed some favorable views of him. There are a couple who probably have some reason to see an advantage. Vladimir Putin is a tough case to call. On the one hand, he has said some favorable things about Trump — and Trump has said some favorable things about Putin. But we don’t know if Putin considers Trump a naive businessman he can manipulate, or a potential partner because they appear to see eye to eye on some things.
And which governments are most banking on a Clinton win?
McLaughlin: Many European politicians — like Angela Merkel, François Hollande, Theresa May and leaders of the Baltic states and Ukraine — think a Clinton presidency would benefit them. They’re confident it would continue American support on issues like NATO and perhaps a tougher stance against Russia, perhaps even more so than they’ve experienced with Obama because of his caution about foreign involvement and his hesitation to take steps that could involve the United States in unpredictable outcomes.
I don’t think Clinton would be reckless, but most people think she’d be a little more forceful. In Syria, she was an advocate for a more forceful policy, and she’s now espousing the idea of “no-fly” or “safe zone” — and I think she’ll try to do it. One of the reasons it’s so hard to get a handle on her campaign is I don’t think she has an ideology. She does in that she’s to the left of center, but I don’t think she’s driven by ideology. On foreign policy, I suspect she’s a pragmatist in that long tradition of looking at the situation, getting the facts, weighing the options realistically and making a call based on that.