Why Trump’s COVID diagnosis spooks America’s trading partners

October 2, 2020, 5:00 PM UTC

Even by the standards of Trump-era upheaval, the gyrations in Washington are leaving other countries reeling, with the prospect that election chaos could lead to turmoil elsewhere, and that the world’s biggest economy could be temporarily set adrift.

U.S. stock futures and oil contracts both dropped shortly after President Trump tweeted, at the beginning of Asia’s trading day, that he and Melania Trump had tested positive for COVID-19. 

It’s not clear how sick the president is beyond some cold-like symptoms, or whether the contagion has spread within the White House. But the concern abroad seems to have reached a high point after weeks of violent protests, the shambolic presidential debate on Tuesday, Trump’s reluctance to commit to a peaceful transfer of power—and now, his coronavirus infection.

The unease is particularly stark within Europe, which remains heavily dependent on U.S. cooperation on a myriad of issues like terrorism, cyberthreats, and China’s global power.

“The level of nervousness is quite high,” says François Heisbourg, a defense analyst and Senior Advisor to the Paris-based Foundation for Strategic Research. One of the issues most rattling officials outside the U.S. is the sheer potential for election chaos.

“The presidential election is a deeply flawed exercise,” Heisbourg says. “You have 8,000 different elections, each with their own system. What could go wrong?” 

For some foreign governments, especially in Europe, it is hard to know which is more worrying: A deeply contested election on November 3 with weeks of uncertainty to follow; or the prospect that President Trump might win a second term.

With few exceptions, foreign governments are careful not to say which candidate they prefer. But the anti-Trump sentiments among regular citizens abroad are hardly a secret. The Pew Research Center in Washington last month reported that the U.S. image internationally had plummeted to its lowest level since the organization began conducting yearly polls on the issue nearly 20 years ago. Only about 16% of people said they had confidence in Trump, among those polled in 13 countries, including several in Europe, and Japan, Canada, South Korea and Australia.

As the elections have grown near, European Union officials increasingly have begun considering the real security implications of a second Trump term. “They are extraordinarily worried about it,” says Jeremy Shapiro, research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-based think tank. 

Until now, he says, E.U. officials have retained strong communication with their U.S. counterparts over dozens of issues on which they cooperate. That has continued, even as relations between Trump and governments across the Atlantic have frayed badly, as Trump pulled the U.S. out of the global climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal, withdrew U.S. troops from Syria, and cut the U.S. funding agreement to the World Health Organization in the midst of the pandemic. French President Emmanuel Macron speaks regularly to President Trump, but has bluntly railed against his policies. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has displayed almost open contempt for the U.S. President. Yet despite all that, Shapiro says,  “There is a deep web of ties that runs up and down, and that keeps things going.”

Yet all that could change with a second Trump term. Officials, Shapiro says, worry that Trump’s “America First” “political” foreign policy would make it difficult for the “functional” work done by thousands of career foreign service staff to continue. “Exactly at what point that will be, we do not know,” he says.

That would be especially dangerous if the U.S. and Europe fail to cooperate on big global threats, like cyberattacks and China’s rising power.

Meanwhile, Trump’s announcement that he had tested positive for COVID-19 brought a sense of vindication in China—the country for which the U.S. President has named the virus. “President Trump and the first lady have paid the price for his gamble to play down the COVID-19,” Hu Xiijin, editor in chief of China’s pro-government Global Times wrote in a taunting tweet. “It will impose a negative impact on the image of Trump and the U.S.”

Heisbourg says European officials are already assessing the possibilities of Trump remaining in the White House for another four years. “Will NATO survive? That is a real question on people’s minds.” Heisbourg says. “The U.S. has gone AWOL. People are starting to act as if there is a serious possibility that the U.S. will no longer involve themselves in alliances.”

As the disarray in the U.S. has dragged on, another deep worry has surfaced too: Even if Joe Biden wins, it is uncertain whether the U.S. relationships can return to its previous state of calm. 

“A lot of E.U. officials have emphasized to me that if Joe Biden wins, the Republicans and Trump do not necessarily go away,” Shapiro says. “Biden will go back to the climate agreement: Great. But the election could be reversed in four years.”