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‘People don’t want to be stupid twice’: Foreign diplomats brace for Trump 2020 win

President Donald Trump visits Britain in June on a State trip. Many foreign diplomats, international officials and analysts predicted that Trump will win re-election in 2020. | Alastair Grant/AP Photo

Foreign Policy

The expectation that Trump will win could affect how allies and adversaries approach negotiations with the U.S.

Foreign diplomats are still feeling burned after assuming Donald Trump would lose in 2016 — and they don’t want to be fooled again.

So many of them are quietly predicting and preparing for a Trump victory in 2020. Some are even trying to game out who will be on the president’s team in a second term. The belief that Trump will win re-election — gleaned from conversations with around 20 foreign diplomats, international officials and analysts who deal with them — appears widespread.

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“In 2016, nobody believed he was going to be elected. People don’t want to be stupid twice,” said Gerard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States.

There’s no known scientific survey on the topic — few foreign officials would participate in one given diplomatic norms that preclude them from commenting on another country’s internal politics. But none who talked to POLITICO were willing to say that Trump will lose. Instead, they pointed to three key advantages for Trump: He’s the incumbent, the U.S. economy is strong and the Democrats have no definitive front-runner to challenge him.

The expectation could affect how allies and adversaries approach negotiations with the U.S. While countries like China and Iran have shown signs of trying to wait out Trump, several foreign officials said it would be ill-advised to count on a Trump defeat in 2020. Even if Trump loses, they argued, some of his policies and views may shape U.S. foreign policy for years to come.

“The way it looks to people is it’s going to be another four years,” said an Arab diplomat, who, like most people, requested anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive subject. “If he gets reelected, he’s bound by nothing, except Congress. And I don’t know how that’s going to play out.”

Embassies are already planning — as best they can — for the post-2020 world.

An Asian ambassador said that every embassy in Washington is working “on the basis that the president has more than an even chance at being reelected.” But he, like others, said the embassies had to prepare for either possibility.

The ambassador said some countries may choose not to launch new initiatives with the United States now because “the possibility of it coming to fruition aren’t high,” especially once campaign season kicks into high gear. “But if there’s something already in the process, you’re probably not going to stop,” he said.

Another foreign diplomat’s embassy is already trying to predict who will be on Trump’s team in a second term. The embassy also is trying to figure out who will be in each Democrat’s orbit, but with more than 20 candidates to follow, it’s hard, the diplomat said.

The diplomat noted that, on the one hand, Trump may lose interest in any sort of major policy moves in 2020 as the campaign heats up and takes up more of his time. Still, presidents often use foreign policy to make a mark when it’s clear that they can’t get any legislation through Congress in an election year.

“But Trump is very hard to predict!” the foreign diplomat said. “We are always very surprised.”

On some subjects, it may not matter much whether the Republican president wins or loses, several diplomats said.

On U.S. military involvement overseas, for instance, some Democratic candidates for president are showing isolationist impulses like Trump. And Trump’s desire for more “fair” trade deals isn’t too different from the views of challengers like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

In other words, no foreign government should bank on getting a better shake post-Trump.

“He’s not an isolated phenomenon,” a European diplomat said. “In his campaign and his presidency, he’s just responding to what the American public feels. The frustration he expresses, the grievances he responded to in his campaign are very often real.”

That hasn’t stopped a few countries from sending signals that they’d rather wait and see what happens.

China, for one, appears unlikely to strike a trade deal with the U.S. until after the 2020 election. Beijing has been increasingly reluctant to make concessions as Trump has slapped a steady stream of tariffs on the country’s exports.

Iran’s Islamist regime, meanwhile, appears unwilling to hold new nuclear negotiations with Trump, despite the president’s repeated imposition of sanctions that have battered the country’s economy.

Yet other governments believe they could benefit from a Trump reelection.

Gerard Araud

Former French ambassador to the U.S. Gerard Araud speaks at Capitol Hill in April 2015. Araud said foreign diplomats didn’t expect President Donald Trump’s election in 2016, and “people don’t want to be stupid twice.” | Andrew Harnik, File/AP Photo

Hungary and Poland have good ties with Trump, who critics say has been willing to look past anti-democratic developments in both countries. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has similarly flaunted his relationship with Trump, whose favors have included recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The U.S. president has also showered praise and arms sales on Saudi Arabia, despite bipartisan outcry over the country’s killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

“The current administration is really good from the business perspective,” one European ambassador said. “For governments who want regulations changed, they might have a better chance now than with another administration.”

The British are keen on inking a bilateral trade deal with the United States as soon as they leave the European Union. And the Trump administration has promised to work with them on one. Earlier this month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pledged the U.S. will be on Britain’s “doorstep, pen in hand.”

At the same time, though, Trump’s aides have signaled they will set out tough terms for any trade deal with London.

Then there’s Russia, whom U.S. intelligence agencies say interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. Trump has tried to be friendly to Russian leader Vladimir Putin, but he also has imposed a bevy of sanctions on Moscow, so his presidency has been a bit of a toss-up for Putin.

North Korea is another interesting case.

Trump made history by meeting face-to-face with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un, part of an effort to strike a nuclear deal with the country. But neither side has made significant strides toward its ultimate goal — an end to North Korea’s nuclear program for the U.S., and an end to U.S. sanctions for North Korea.

Still, Trump touts his friendship with Kim, whom he says has sent him many “beautiful” letters, and has downplayed Kim’s recent short-range missile tests. Trump has also scaled back U.S.-South Korean joint military exercises, a gift to Kim.

The North Korean ruler may not get such generous treatment from a Democratic president eager to distinguish himself or herself from Trump.

Tom Wright, a foreign policy analyst with the Brookings Institution, pointed out that, aside from psychological preparation, most foreign governments have not made concrete moves to redefine their relationship with the U.S., a sign that they know anything can happen in 2020.

But if Trump does win, other countries may determine that something fundamental has shifted in the United States. For U.S. allies, such as France and Germany, that could mean a serious re-evaluation of their military and economic partnerships with Washington. These countries will likely expect that, it Trump wins, “future Democratic candidates will be more nationalistic,” Wright predicted.

“It’s not Trump, it’s much wider than him,” agreed a senior European Union diplomat.

“It’s not anymore that we are the two allies fighting together against threats like terrorism,” the diplomat added. “The way they look at us now is mainly as a market to conquer against Chinese interests. It has become a bilateral struggle between them and the Chinese for who conquers Europe or Africa.”

In 2016, many foreign officials fell for the conventional wisdom that Democrat Hillary Clinton would defeat Trump. This time, they admit there’s a bit of overcompensation as they tell their capitals to be prepared for a second Trump term.

And all admit that in a few months, they might feel differently, especially if the U.S. economy spirals downward as some fear it will.

Even then, several diplomats argued, Trump has a certain political talent — a knack for motivating his base while frustrating the Democrats. He’s a wild card that you can’t count out.

“What I’m saying right now is, I think, shared by many people,” a Middle Eastern diplomat said of the coming presidential election. “It’s his to lose.”

Jacopo Barigazzi contributed to this report.

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