LONDON — Ripples of alarm, and some glee, coursed across the globe after President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis emerged, with U.S. allies and foes weighing whether the president’s condition was a dangerous distraction or an opportunity.
If adversaries like Russia’s Vladimir Putin, North Korea’s Kim Jong Un or China’s Xi Jinping “were looking for a moment to test American resolve abroad, they might be tempted by a moment when the U.S. leadership situation was so precarious,” former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told NBC News.
Trump’s medical team said Sunday that his condition was improving after multiple “episodes” over the weekend while also disclosing that Trump was placed on a steroid therapy typically used in more severe Covid-19 cases.
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Even before the news broke early Friday, America was turned inward, focused on the looming presidential election.
“Add to that the possibility of a president being incapacitated … that creates a very significant internal distraction that adversaries could take advantage of,” Shapiro said.
With less than 30 days to go until the election, the Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy is widely established. But as the world’s main superpower militarily, economically and culturally, no other leader’s health has the same impact on global affairs as the American president’s.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that he had talked to more than half a dozen world leaders over the past few days, all of whom told the president and the first lady to get well.
“We know there’s rogue actors, we know there’s malign actors around the world,” he said, in a response to a question by the press. “The United States is fully prepared.”
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The U.S. plays a leading role in global conflicts in Afghanistan, Syria, Iraq and Libya and has long led efforts to counter Russia, contain North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and, more recently, try to deal with Turkey’s growing regional influence. While Washington-Beijing ties have been strained by an ongoing trade war, the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. reaction to an increasingly assertive China.
The world was already bracing itself for an uncertain presidential election amid a global pandemic, and the president being sick only compounds an overwhelming sense of unpredictability about the coming months, political analysts say.
That Trump’s health dominated front-pages and newscasts across the globe after the news emerged, underlines the outsize influence of the American presidency.
London’s Sunday Times called out “confusion” over the president’s condition, and there was widespread speculation about his overall health and the point at which the world would know whether he was out of the woods.
In Germany, the Bild tabloid’s main headline asked readers: “Are Trump’s doctors telling the full truth?” stoking speculation about the accuracy of his health reports.
Italian media highlighted contradictions around the timing of his diagnosis.
The United States’ standing has already eroded under Trump in the traditionally pro-U.S. bastion of Europe.
Early in his presidency, Trump hinted that he would withdraw from the NATO military alliance, saying some members weren’t paying their way in the body set up as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
On July 29, the U.S. announced it would withdraw almost 12,000 troops from Germany, a long-standing ally, with more than half returning to the U.S. and the remainder dispersed across the continent. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron warned the U.S. was “turning its back on us.”
Still, America remains vital to Europe.
“The United States is the ultimate guarantor of European security,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director at British defense and the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank.
“If you have a rudderless United States, then these things will matter,” Eyal added. “It’s still by far the biggest single military power and economic power.”
Eyal said there was already a growing insecurity in Europe about the prospects of the U.S. in the coming months. Trump contracting the coronavirus merely compounded the uncertainty, he said.
The United States’ role in Europe has been vital in trying to counter the threat on its eastern flank, Russia.
Intelligence services have found that Russia interfered in Western elections, including the United States’. Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee said the U.S. election infrastructure was unprepared to combat “extensive activity” by Russia, which began in 2014 and carried on at least into 2017.
The July 25 report was issued one day after former special counsel Robert Mueller warned U.S. lawmakers that he believed Russia would seek to interfere again in the 2020 campaign.
“Russia is always opportunistic,” said James Nixey, head of the Russia-Eurasia program at think tank Chatham House.
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“Russia and the U.S. disagree on almost everything these days,” he added.
In the Middle East, Russia is on the opposite side of the U.S. in a number of issues, most notably by backing President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.
Still, if Trump was seriously incapacitated, Nixey said, this could be “bad news” for the Kremlin, which has in many ways viewed his presidency as an “asset.”
“This is the most pro-Russian … president we have ever known,” he added.
‘Vigilant against any adventurism’
In China, the world’s second-largest economy and increasingly a rival to the U.S. on the world stage, official reactions to Trump’s health were muted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping offered “sympathy” and wished the president a “speedy recovery,” but there was a whiff of schadenfreude in state media, with some columnists accusing Trump of paying a price for playing down the pandemic.
Beijing and Washington have recently clashed on trade, the coronavirus, Hong Kong’s autonomy, China’s regional claims on much of the South China Sea and human rights abuses toward its Uighur Muslim minority.
Despite this, Victor Gao, a professor at China’s Soochow University, warned against any attempts to fill a possible void left by an incapacitated American president.
“The world at large should be vigilant against any adventurism and any vicious attempts to disrupt peace and development,” said Gao, a former aide to previous Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
So, it is perhaps no surprise that on Chinese social media the response to the news of Trump’s illness was often snide. The hashtag #Trump racked up more than 530 million mentions on the messaging platform Weibo — less than 90 minutes after Trump tweeted that he’d tested positive.
“A good gift to our national day and midautumn festival,” said one Weibo user, as China is in the middle of celebrating a national holiday.
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Elsewhere, the U.S. remains a major player in the Middle East. And for decades, America has stood behind the leaders of some Arab states including the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
In recent weeks, Trump has radically refashioned diplomatic relationships in the region, brokering “historic” normalization deals between Israel and two Gulf Arab States.
But among those ready to fill any vacuum, are countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran, pushing for greater geopolitical influence in the region — with Tehran remaining an archenemy of America’s key allies.
However, Ilan Goldenberg, Middle East security program director at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said he didn’t expect Trump’s illness to have profound international implications.
“We have long held mechanisms for empowering the vice president in situations like this,” Goldenberg said.
“I think it would be unwise at this moment for, let’s say, adversaries to start testing the United States.”
Adela Suliman and Saphora Smith reported from London; Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing.