As Trump Era Arrives, a Sense of Uncertainty Grips the World
LONDON — The Germans are angry. The Chinese are downright furious. Leaders of NATO are nervous, while their counterparts at the European Union are alarmed.
Just days before he is sworn into office, President-elect Donald J. 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 America’s traditional leadership of the West.
No one knows where exactly he is headed — except that the one country he is not criticizing is Russia and its president, Vladimir V. 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 European Union as “basically a vehicle for Germany” and predicted that the bloc would probably see other countries follow Britain’s example and vote to leave.
Mr. Trump 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 Sunday and Monday in Britain and Germany elicited alarm and outrage in Europe, even as Ms. Merkel dryly characterized Mr. Trump’s positions as nothing new.
“They have been known for a while — my positions are also known,” Ms. Merkel said 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 criticizing Ms. 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 longstanding One China policy. It holds that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the mainland.
On Monday, China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman, 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 Mr. 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 European Union is hardly a novel thought; many Europeans share the same complaints. But what is startling is how an incoming American 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 Monday in the German newspaper Bild and The Times of London, Mr. Trump also equated his trust of Ms. Merkel 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 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 E.U. 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.”
Mr. Trump’s remarks almost certainly rankled Europe’s two most powerful leaders, Ms. Merkel and Prime Minister Theresa May of Britain. Mr. Trump’s enthusiasm for Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, 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 European Union — a deal that cannot take place for at least two years until Britain leaves the bloc.
Awkwardly for her, one of the interviewers was Michael Gove, who strongly supported Brexit and ran for the Conservative leadership against Mrs. May, who immediately fired him from the cabinet. Mr. Trump’s first meeting with a British politician was with another May adversary, Nigel Farage, the former leader of the anti-Europe U.K. Independence Party, or UKIP.
Ms. Merkel, who is known for her sang-froid and pragmatism, shrugged off Mr. Trump’s latest criticism, saying that what matters is what he does in office. “I am waiting for the president to be sworn into office. That is the way it is done,” she said. “And then, of course, I will work with him together.”
The German foreign minister, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, was not so sanguine. Mr. Trump’s comments had “caused astonishment and commotion, and I’m sure not just in Brussels,” where he spoke on Monday before a monthly meeting of European Union foreign ministers.
Mr. Steinmeier said that he had just seen the NATO secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, and that there was continuing concern inside the military alliance.
“First, it goes against the statements of the nominated defense secretary a few days ago,” Mr. Steinmeier said. “We have to see what it will yield in terms of U.S. foreign policy. The same goes for the statements on trade policy. We count on the U.S. to stick to its international obligations, including in the World Trade Organization.”
Others cautioned against taking Mr. Trump’s words literally, at least for now. “I take all of this with a pinch of salt,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, the London-based research institution. “I think Trump is trying to keep his options open and not be cornered by simply standing up for existing policy positions.”
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 Obama’s departing ambassador to Germany, 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. Mr. Emerson underscored that, while more clarity was needed, there were signs that Mr. Trump did value NATO and the promise of United States 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 “authorized 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 in Italy. Victories by populist parties could destabilize the European Union, and many European officials worry that Mr. Trump’s attacks are damaging.
Martin Schäfer, a spokesman for Mr. Steinmeier and the German Foreign Ministry, flatly rejected Mr. Trump’s comment in the interview that the European Union “is basically a vehicle for Germany.”
“Perhaps in times such as these, when order is crumbling, it is more important than ever that we want to, and must, stand together,” Mr. Schäfer said, underlining the post-World War II German stance that only through the country’s role in a larger European alliance are peace and prosperity guaranteed.
Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault of France said Mr. Trump’s comments were an invitation to the bloc to stand united. “As is the case with Brexit,” he said, “the best way of defending Europe, and that is the invitation Mr. Trump has given to us, is to remain united as a bloc, not forgetting that the strength of Europeans lies in their unity.”
The British foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, who supported Brexit, emphasized Mr. Trump’s warm comments on the Anglo-American relationship. “I think it’s very good news that the U.S.A. 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.”