No matter what happens on U.S. election day, no one will ever say that Donald Trump did not leave his mark on the world during his time as President of the United States.
In the Golan Heights, a gold-on-brown sign, reminiscent of those that adorn his family’s real estate properties around the world, welcomes visitors to a yet-to-be-built Israeli settlement called Trump Heights. In the Balkans, a much more modest blue-and-white banner has been draped over a bridge to tell visitors that they’re approaching Lake Trump, an unorthodox renaming of a body of water that straddles the border between Serbia and Kosovo. In Poland, there’s talk of calling a planned U.S. military base, which would play host to American troops redeployed from Germany, Fort Trump.
The settlement, lake and proposed military base named after Mr. Trump all commemorate decisions he made that rattled, rather than strengthened, the global order. Each monument will serve as a reminder of how difficult it will be – even if challenger Joe Biden wins the Nov. 3 election – to undo what has happened over the past four years.
Mr. Biden’s campaign statements and track record suggest he would seek to return the United States to its traditional leadership role, promoting human rights and democracy, while countering the influence of authoritarian states such as China and Russia. He has promised to return the U.S. to the organizations and treaties that Mr. Trump quit – such as the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement to combat climate change – and says he would hold a “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office.
But if he is elected, Mr. Biden will inherit a world made wary of U.S. power and skeptical of its long-term intentions. Key institutions such as the NATO military alliance and the Group of Seven industrialized countries have been weakened over the past four years, while the likes of Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have all grown more assertive.
Mr. Biden was vice-president when Barack Obama first came to office in 2008, promising to change America’s role in the world after the disastrous invasion of Iraq five years earlier. One of the supposed fixes was to “pivot” America’s focus away from the Middle East and toward Asia and a rising China. If Mr. Biden makes it to the top job, he will need to contemplate an even more daunting realignment.
“Given the damage that Trump has done, Biden can’t just say ‘I’m pivoting to the East.’ He needs to be more active in Europe, in the Caucasus, in the Middle East, in Asia. That will be Biden’s challenge,” said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst and former Mossad agent.
Mr. Trump’s presidency has unquestionably made an impact on regions, such as the Middle East, that he has an interest in. His administration’s biggest foreign-policy accomplishment may be this year’s agreements to normalize ties between Israel and the Gulf kingdoms of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain. But peace agreements they are not. The UAE and Bahrain were never formally at war with Israel, and the deals do nothing to address the status of the Palestinians who have lived under Israeli military occupation since 1967.
This White House has often been more noticeable for its absence than its engagement on key international files such as the popular uprising in Belarus and the renewed fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh. The latter conflict – which risks escalating into a regional war that could draw in Turkey, which has supported Azerbaijan, and Russia, which is treaty-bound to defend Armenia – would seem particularly ripe for Mr. Trump to play a role in solving, given his warm relationships with both Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan.
But Mr. Trump has yet to make a statement on either Belarus or Nagorno-Karabakh. “Never before has the U.S. been so much absent,” said Olesya Vartanyan, a Caucasus analyst at the International Crisis Group, a Brussels-based think tank. "Trump’s administration never saw an interest in taking part in any efforts related to [the Nagorno-Karabakh] conflict.”
Recognizing Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights, land most of the world considers part of Syria, was just one of many steps Mr. Trump took that undermined international law – and those moves empowered other disruptive actors. Two months after the sign went up at “Trump Heights” in June, 2019, India decided there was no reason why it shouldn’t also unilaterally resolve an international dispute on its own terms, ending the autonomous status of the parts of disputed Kashmir under its control.
This year, Mr. Xi decided the timing was right to impose Chinese law on Hong Kong, abrogating a 1997 treaty that China had signed with Britain over the fate of the former British colony. With each new development, those calling for Russia to give back the Crimean Peninsula – which it seized and annexed from Ukraine in 2014, on Barack Obama’s watch – saw their arguments weakened.
While support for Israel, and disdain for international institutions, didn’t begin with Mr. Trump, the monuments in Europe celebrate Mr. Trump’s brash willingness to ignore and insult long-time American allies. Lake Trump is the biggest change to come out of a White House attempt to hammer out a peace agreement between Serbia and Kosovo, a peace push that saw the European Union cut out of the negotiations. (The U.S.-led talks have yielded little progress to date). Fort Trump is the nickname given for a base that’s only necessary because Mr. Trump decided to redeploy troops from Germany to Poland after Mr. Trump accused Germany of “not paying their bills.”
The decision to remove U.S. troops from Germany is one of several steps Mr. Trump took that undermined the integrity of NATO, an alliance whose relevance he has repeatedly questioned. Meanwhile, the President divided the G7 by repeatedly suggesting that Russia be readmitted, despite the annexation of Crimea and Mr. Putin’s ongoing military support for separatist fighters in eastern Ukraine, as well as Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria.
“From a European perspective, the problem isn’t Donald Trump, it’s the American electorate,” said Jasmin Mujanovic, an expert on the Balkans who co-hosts the Sarajevo Calling podcast. In other words, even if Mr. Biden wins the Nov. 3 election, America’s allies and rivals alike are left to wonder what kind of leader U.S. voters will elect in 2024 or 2028.
Ineffective gestures have been a hallmark of Mr. Trump’s presidency. His first big effort on the international stage was a summit with Kim Jong-un that ended the North Korean despot’s diplomatic isolation while doing nothing to slow his country’s nuclear program. (The regime unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile at a military parade earlier this month.)
The most fraught foreign-policy move of his presidency may have been his January decision to order the assassination of General Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps, and the mastermind behind a series of Iranian advances and U.S. reversals across the Middle East over the preceding decade.
But Iran backed away from all-out war in the first days of 2020, and instead stuck to Gen. Soleimani’s strategy of slowly driving the U.S. out of the region through attacks on the U.S. embassy in Baghdad and other targets.
It’s the U.S., not Iran, that now looks to be backing down. Amid ongoing rocket attacks, the Trump administration has threatened to close the American embassy in the Iraqi capital.
(Mr. Biden has said he is ready to return to “the path of diplomacy” with Iran, suggesting a willingness to revisit the nuclear deal that Mr. Obama negotiated in 2015 and Mr. Trump abandoned three years later.)
Meanwhile, conflicts in Syria, Libya and Yemen have grown into regional proxy wars that have drawn in Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, while the U.S. keeps its military, diplomatic and economic tools on the sidelines.
Regional linchpin Lebanon is in chaos, but the U.S. appears content to let French President Emmanuel Macron do the hard work of trying to avoid another civil war there, too.
Perhaps the biggest loss of the past four years is the hardest to see. As Mr. Trump has cheered harsh police actions against protesters in the U.S., and ridiculed his country’s media – and took only token action after Saudi agents killed Jamal Khashoggi, a critical journalist who was also a Washington Post columnist – it has become easier for authoritarians such as Mr. Xi, Mr. Putin and Mr. Erdogan to defend the repression of their own critics.
Yu Jie, a China specialist at London-based Chatham House, said that while future relations between Beijing and Washington will be rocky no matter who wins the Nov. 3 vote, China’s leadership was likely more comfortable with Mr. Trump. His “erratic” style of rule, combined with well-publicized episodes of police violence, and the U.S.'s bungled handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, have strengthened the Communist Party by making democracy look less appealing to ordinary Chinese, Ms. Yu said.
“Before Donald Trump came to power, the U.S. was looked up to by China’s youngsters, who said ‘that’s the place where I want to study.’ Not now,” Ms. Yu said. “They’ve made a comparison between the two systems and thought ‘perhaps this is safer for us, even if we don’t have the political freedoms.’ ”
But if the world has been set on a new course by the past four years, the monuments to Mr. Trump are likely to remain only if he defies the polls on Nov. 3. The military base in Poland won’t open until after the election, and almost certainly won’t bear Mr. Trump’s name if Mr. Biden wins. Locals in Serbia and Kosovo, Mr. Mujanovic said, have ignored the renaming of their lake, which Serbs call Gazivoda and Kosovars know as Ujman.
Meanwhile, construction has yet to begin at Trump Heights. In the 16 months after the new Golan settlement was announced to great fanfare, all but two letters have been stolen off the gold-on-brown sign. Mr. Alpher, the former Israeli intelligence officer, said he expected the moniker would disappear entirely if Mr. Biden wins the election. “If Trump loses, I don’t think that name will stick.”
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