In Debate, Trump Shrugs and It’s NATO That’s Shaken

Amid a faltering performance by President Joe Biden in the presidential debate Thursday night, former President Donald Trump caused anxiety among U.S. allies with a simple shrug.

Trump has regularly disparaged NATO and even threatened to withdraw the United States from it, and during the debate, he did nothing to assuage European concerns about his antipathy toward the military alliance.

Asked by Biden if he would pull out of NATO, Trump did not answer but shrugged.

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“I was very worried prior to this debate and I’m even more worried now,” said Jana Puglierin, director of the German office of the European Council on Foreign Relations. “Trump may or may not want to leave NATO officially, but he has every means to undermine NATO.”

At the heart of NATO is Article 5 of its charter, committing each member country to the defense of all the others. “Deterrence is all about credibility and deep down, Article 5 has always been what you make of it,” Puglierin said. “So it depends on the U.S. president making it a credible threat.”

Given Trump’s skepticism about alliances, European nations that rely on the promise of American protection, she said, are worried he might try to forge bilateral relationships with Europe “and make them transactional.”

Camille Grand, a former assistant secretary-general of NATO, said that in a second term, Trump would be surrounded by people “who want to turn his instincts into policy rather than saying, ‘This is a bad idea, Mr. President.’”

“But the worst thing is his unpredictability, and Europe is at war,” he added. In peacetime there is always another summit or a chance to build relationships, he said. “But in a war, if he suddenly suggests a peace settlement overnight or something that makes the U.S. security guarantee hollow, that’s much more difficult to manage,” Grand said.

Trump boasted Thursday night that he had forced European countries to increase their military spending, though it has grown more under Biden. Already, Grand said, the Europeans understand they have to do more in their own defense, and in fact are spending $130 billion more every year than they did in 2014, he said.

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But whoever is president, “we need to make sure we can defend Europe with less America.”

NATO supporters were hardly the only international observers unnerved by the debate. The back-and-forth between the blustering Trump and the faltering Biden set analysts fretting — and not just about who might win the election in November.

Sergey Radchenko, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, wrote on the social media platform X, “This election is doing more to discredit American democracy than Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping could ever hope to,” referring to the leaders of Russia and China, America’s most powerful rivals.

“I am worried about the image projected to the outside world,” he continued. “It is not an image of leadership. It is an image of terminal decline.”

Whoever becomes president, the United States faces major global challenges — in Asia, from a rising China and a nuclear North Korea recently bolstered by Putin; in Europe from Russia’s war against Ukraine; and in the Middle East, where the Israel-Hamas war threatens to spread to southern Lebanon and even Iran.

There was little of substance on foreign policy in the noisy debate. Trump continued to insist without explanation that he could have prevented Putin from invading Ukraine, or Hamas from invading Israel, and that he could bring a quick end to both conflicts.

Biden cited his efforts to bring allies together to aid Ukraine and confront Russia. “I’ve got 50 other nations around the world to support Ukraine, including Japan and South Korea,” he said.

For some, the debate made a Trump presidency, already considered a strong possibility, seem like a probability, said François Heisbourg, a French analyst. “So on all the issues, the debate is a confirmation of European worries, and some of it has already been integrated into people’s thinking.”

“People hear Trump saying he wants to cut back aid to Ukraine, so this will move to the center of the debate,” he said, along with Trump’s stated fondness for Putin as a strong leader.

On Israel and the Gaza Strip, however, “I’m not sure it will make much of a difference,” Heisbourg said. “You can’t move the embassy to Jerusalem twice.”

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Added to existing worries about the unpredictable Trump, which the debate only confirmed, is fresh anxiety about Biden’s capacity to govern. One of the harshest assessments came from Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski. In a social media post, he compared Biden to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who “screwed up his succession by passing the baton to his feckless son Commodus, whose disastrous rule started Rome’s decline.”

“It’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset,” Sikorski added.

In Ukraine, the clamor about the debate reverberated Friday.

Referring to Biden, Bogdan Butkevych, a popular radio host, wrote on social media, “His main task was to convince the voters of his energy and readiness to rule.” But, he added, “He wasn’t able to do it. Accordingly, the chance of his replacement by another candidate from the Democrats increases.”

Some took a measure of solace in Trump’s saying that he did not find it acceptable for the Kremlin to keep occupied lands. The Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian news outlet, ran a headline that read, “Trump rejects Putin’s peace terms while Biden unnerves Democrats.”

Russian media portrayed the debate as a sign of American weakness and disarray. The result “is good for us,” Dmitry Novikov, a Russian lawmaker, said on a talk show on state television Friday. “Destabilization inside an adversary is always a good thing.”

In Asia, the debate resurfaced serious questions about how U.S. politics might affect stability. Trump’s term deeply rattled alliances in the region, and nations hoping to see the United States balance China’s influence and undermine North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have spent the past four years trying to rebuild ties with Washington.

“It was clearly a Trump win and a nail in the coffin for the Biden campaign,” said Lee Byong-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul, South Korea.

“We must now brace ourselves for a second Trump administration,” he added.

In Japan, a major U.S. ally in Asia, officials have almost always been assiduous about declaring that they are happy working with whomever the United States elects. But Trump’s comments during the debate that he does not want to spend money defending allies are likely to revive anxieties that he treats international relationships as transactional rather than enduring.

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“My guess is that the Japanese policymakers are thinking, ‘OK, it’s going to be Trump quite likely, so we have to cement institutional ties as much as possible so he can’t undo them,’” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “That is like tying yourself to a mast that may be sinking very soon, so it’s a false illusion of security.”

India has worked in recent years to overcome a long history of mistrust, expanding military and trade ties with Washington. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed warm relations with Trump during his presidency, the Indian establishment has seen in Biden a steady hand who understands how alliances work and how to contain geopolitical risk.

Tara Kartha, a former senior official in the National Security Council of India, noted that Trump is unpredictable and could shift positions — like changing his current hard-line approach to China if Beijing offers him better terms on trade. That uncertainty makes calculations difficult for India, which shares a border with China and a long rivalry with Beijing.

“We are now hedging with China,” she said. “Because you are not really sure what’s going to happen to the U.S.”

In China, the presidential debate was a top trending topic on the social media platform Weibo. Official Chinese media outlets largely played it straight, reporting each candidates’ remarks — and their lack of a handshake — without adding much commentary.

Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar, said the debate had only reinforced something the Chinese government had long thought: No matter who the next president is, U.S. policy toward China is only likely to harden.

What was clear after Thursday’s debate was that few Asian analysts felt optimistic about the U.S. electoral options.

“Where are the good ones? Where are the brave ones?” said Kasit Piromya, who has served as Thailand’s foreign minister and its ambassador in Washington. He added that Southeast Asian countries must have a foreign policy vision of their own.

“Why should I wait for Trump to be bad?” he said.

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