Uncertainty grips the world as Trump era arrives

The world is accustomed to US President-elect Donald Trump's provocative Twitter messages, but is less clear about whether his remarks represent meaningful new policy guidelines, personal judgments or passing whims.
The world is accustomed to US President-elect Donald Trump's provocative Twitter messages, but is less clear about whether his remarks represent meaningful new policy guidelines, personal judgments or passing whims.PHOTO: AFP

LONDON (NYTIMES) - The Germans are angry. The Chinese are downright furious. Leaders of Nato military alliance are nervous, while their counterparts at the European Union (EU) are alarmed.

Just days before he is sworn into office, US President-elect Donald Trump has again focused his penchant for unpredictable disruption on the rest of the world. His remarks in a string of discursive and sometimes contradictory interviews have escalated tensions with China, while also infuriating allies and institutions critical to the United States' traditional leadership of the West.

No one knows where exactly he is headed - except that the one country he is not criticising is Russia and its president Vladimir Putin. For now. And that he is an enthusiastic cheerleader of Brexit and an unaffiliated Britain. For now.

Mr Trump's unpredictability is perhaps his most predictable characteristic. The world is accustomed to his provocative Twitter messages, but is less clear about whether his remarks represent meaningful new policy guidelines, personal judgments or passing whims.

In the interviews, Mr Trump described the EU as "basically a vehicle for Germany" and predicted that the bloc would probably see other countries follow Britain's example and vote to leave.

He also said Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel had made a "catastrophic mistake" in allowing refugees to pour into Europe.

The barrage of inflammatory comments in joint interviews published on Sunday (Jan 15) and Monday in Britain and Germany elicited alarm and outrage in Europe, even as Dr Merkel dryly characterised Mr Trump's positions as nothing new.

"They have been known for a while - my positions are also known," Dr Merkel said on Monday in Berlin. "I think we Europeans have control of our destiny."

Her clipped response came as officials and analysts struggled with how to interpret Mr Trump's remarks as well as how to react to them.

Some argued that the President-elect's words should be regarded as tactical, intended merely to keep his options open. But nearly everyone agreed that Mr Trump had made trouble, especially in criticising Dr Merkel, given her importance as a figure of stability in Europe and her campaign for re-election later this year.

For good measure, Mr Trump had also infuriated China by using an interview on Friday with The Wall Street Journal to again question China's long-standing "one China" policy. It holds that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the mainland.

On Monday, China's foreign ministry spokesman Hua Chunying said that anyone trying to use the status of Taiwan for negotiations would be "smashing their feet by lifting a rock" and would face broad and strong opposition from the Chinese government and people, as well as the international community.

She added that "not everything in the world can be bargained or traded off".

The English-language China Daily accused Mr Trump on Monday of "playing with fire", saying that if Taiwan became up for negotiation, as Trump suggested to The Journal, "Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves".

Mr Trump's interviews in Europe have placed him right in the middle of the Continent's most contentious issues. His critique of German dominance over the EU is hardly a novel thought; many Europeans share the same complaints. But what is startling is how an incoming US president would make such a statement about a key ally and in doing so, give succor to populist parties seeking to shatter the European political establishment.

In the interview published on Monday the German newspaper Bild, and The Times of London, Mr Trump also equated his trust of her with his trust for Mr Putin.

"I start off trusting both," he said during the joint interview, which was conducted inside his office in Trump Tower in New York, "but let's see how long that lasts. It may not last long at all."

Certainly, Mr Trump knows how to give a provocative interview. He repeated past criticisms that Nato is "obsolete" for supposedly not confronting terrorism, only to quickly add that "with that being said, Nato is very important to me".

Mr Trump's comments "are a direct assault on the liberal order we've built since 1945 and a repudiation of the idea that the United States should lead the West", said Mr R. Nicholas Burns, a former senior State Department official and ambassador to Nato, who also advised the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

"To say that Nato is obsolete, openly support the disintegration of the EU and then denigrate Merkel and put her on a par with Putin is a fundamental break with 70 years of American policy and strategic thought supported by Republicans from Eisenhower to now," said Mr Burns, who has served presidents of both parties.

"Nato is the great power differential between the United States and Russia, as our Asian alliances are the power differential between us and China."

His remarks almost certainly rankled Europe's two most powerful leaders, Dr Merkel and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. Mr Trump's enthusiasm for Britain's vote to leave the EU, or Brexit - if welcomed by British officials, in general terms - has put considerably more pressure on Mrs May.

She is preparing to give a major speech on Tuesday about her Brexit plans, even as Mr Trump promised to give Britain a quick and fair trade deal outside the EU - a deal that cannot take place for at least two years until Britain leaves the bloc.

Mr Trump's transition team will try to begin to smooth over some of the tensions on Tuesday in Washington, where the group planning his inauguration will host a black-tie dinner for members of the foreign diplomatic corps to mingle with prospective Cabinet members, leaders of Congress and Vice President-elect Mike Pence.

President Barack Obama's departing ambassador to Germany, Mr John B. Emerson, has used a series of exit interviews and speeches in recent days to urge the Germans to stay calm, not to overinterpret Twitter posts or view them as finished foreign policy. He underscored that while more clarity was needed, there were signs that Mr Trump did value Nato and the promise of US protection for European allies.

"It's a very crucial issue, not just for European security, but for American security," Mr Emerson said. He noted that Mr Trump "authorised President Obama when he came here on his trip shortly after the two of them met to reassure European partners of the full commitment to Nato. Now, we need to see what that means".

Yet Europe is staring at a potentially transformative political year, with elections coming in the Netherlands, France and Germany, and possibly Italy. Victories by populist parties could destabilise the EU, and many European officials worry that Mr Trump's attacks are damaging.

British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, who supported Brexit, emphasised Mr Trump's warm comments on the Anglo-American relationship.

"I think it's very good news that the USA wants to do a good free trade deal with us and wants to do it very fast," he said. "Clearly it will have to be a deal that's very much in the interests of both sides, but I have no doubt it will be."