Analysis & Opinions - Foreign Affairs

Trump Is Already Reshaping Geopolitics

| Jan. 16, 2024

How U.S. Allies and Adversaries Are Responding to the Chance of His Return

In the decade before the great financial crisis of 2008, the chair of the Federal Reserve, Alan Greenspan, became a virtual demigod in Washington. As U.S. Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, famously advised, “If he’s alive or dead it doesn’t matter. If he’s dead, just prop him up and put some dark glasses on him.”

During Greenspan’s two decades as chair, from 1987 to 2006, the Fed played a central role in a period of accelerated growth in the U.S. economy. Among the sources of Greenspan’s fame was what financial markets called the “Fed put.” (A “put” is a contract that gives the owner the right to sell an asset at a fixed price until a fixed date.) During Greenspan’s tenure, investors came to believe that however risky the new products that financial engineers were creating, if something went awry, the system could count on Greenspan’s Fed to come to the rescue and provide a floor below which stocks would not be allowed to fall. The bet paid off: when Wall Street’s mortgage-backed securities and derivatives led to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, triggering the 2008 financial crisis that sparked the Great Recession, the U.S. Treasury and the Fed stepped in to prevent the economy from sliding into a second Great Depression.

That dynamic is worth recalling when considering the effect that the 2024 U.S. presidential election is already having on the decisions of countries around the world. Leaders are now beginning to wake up to the fact that a year from now, former U.S. President Donald Trump could actually be returning to the White House. Accordingly, some foreign governments are increasingly factoring into their relationship with the United States what may come to be known as the “Trump put”—delaying choices in the expectation that they will be able to negotiate better deals with Washington a year from now because Trump will effectively establish a floor on how bad things can get for them. Others, by contrast, are beginning to search for what might be called a “Trump hedge”—analyzing the ways in which his return will likely leave them with worse options and preparing accordingly.

The Ghost of Presidencies Past

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s calculations in his war against Ukraine provide a vivid example of the Trump put. In recent months, as a stalemate has emerged on the ground, speculation has grown about Putin’s readiness to end the war. But as a result of the Trump put, it is far more likely that the war will still be raging this time next year. Despite some Ukrainians’ interest in an extended cease-fire or even an armistice to end the killing before another grim winter takes its toll, Putin knows that Trump has promised to end the war “in one day.” In Trump’s words: “I would tell [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky, no more [aid]. You got to make a deal.”Facing a good chance that a year from now, Trump will offer terms much more advantageous for Russia than anything U.S. President Joe Biden would offer or Zelensky would agree to today, Putin will wait.

Ukraine’s allies in Europe, by contrast, must consider a Trump hedge. As the war approaches the end of its second year, daily pictures of destruction and deaths caused by Russian airstrikes and artillery shells have upended European illusions of living in a world in which war has become obsolete. Predictably, this has led to a revival of enthusiasm for the NATO alliance and its backbone: the U.S. commitment to come to the defense of any ally that is attacked. But as reports of polls showing Trump besting Biden are beginning to sink in, there is a growing fear. Germans, in particular, remember former Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conclusion from her painful encounters with Trump. As she described it, “We must fight for our future on our own.”

Trump is not the only U.S. leader to ask why a European community that has three times the population of Russia and a GDP more than nine times its size has to continue to depend on Washington to defend it. In an oft-cited interview with The Atlantic’s chief editor, Jeffrey Goldberg, in 2016, U.S. President Barack Obama lacerated Europeans (and others) for being “free riders.” But Trump has gone further. According to John Bolton, who was then Trump’s national security adviser, Trump said, “I don’t give a shit about NATO” during a 2019 meeting in which he talked seriously about withdrawing from the alliance altogether. In part, Trump’s threats were a bargaining ploy to force European states to meet their commitment to spend two percent of GDP on their own defense—but only in part. After two years of attempting to persuade Trump about the importance of the United States’s alliances, Secretary of Defense James Mattis concluded that his differences with the president were so profound that he could no longer serve, a position he explained candidly in his 2018 letter of resignation. Today, Trump’s campaign website calls for “fundamentally reevaluating NATO’s purpose and NATO’s mission.” When considering how many tanks or artillery shells to send to Ukraine, some Europeans are now pausing to ask whether they might need those arms for their own defense were Trump to be elected in November.

About This Analysis & Opinions

Trump Is Already Reshaping Geopolitics
For more information on this publication: Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Allison, Graham.“Trump Is Already Reshaping Geopolitics.” Foreign Affairs, January 16, 2024.