LONDON – Waves of alarm and some joy spread around the world after President Donald Trump’s Covid-19 diagnosis surfaced. US allies and enemies weighed whether the president’s condition was a dangerous distraction or an opportunity.
If opponents like the Russian Vladimir Putin, the North Korean Kim Jong Un or the Chinese Xi Jinping “are looking for a moment to test American resolve abroad, they might be tempted by a moment when the situation of the US Leadership was so precarious, “former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told NBC News.
Trump’s medical team said Sunday that his condition had improved after several “episodes” over the weekend, while also announcing that Trump was undergoing steroid therapy, typically used in more severe Covid-19 cases.
Even before the news broke early Friday, America was turned inward and focused on the upcoming presidential election.
“Added to this is the possibility of a president being incapacitated … creating a significant internal distraction that opponents could take advantage of,” Shapiro said.
Less than 30 days until the election, The Trump administration’s “America First” foreign policy is widespread. But as the world’s major military, economic, and cultural superpower, the health of another leader does not have the same impact on global affairs as that of the American president.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday he has spoken to more than half a dozen world leaders in the past few days, all of whom told the President and First Lady they should get well.
“We know there are rogue actors, we know that there are bad actors all over the world,” he replied to a question from 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 made efforts to counter Russia, curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and, more recently, seek to deal with Turkey’s growing regional influence. Meanwhile, Washington-Beijing relations have been strained by an ongoing trade war, the coronavirus pandemic, and the U.S. response to an increasingly assertive China.
The world was already preparing for an uncertain presidential election amid a global pandemic, and the sick president only reinforces an overwhelming sense of unpredictability for the months ahead, political analysts say.
That Trump’s health dominated front pages and newscasts around the world after the news was released, underscores the oversized influence of the American presidency.
The Sunday Times of London caused “confusion” about the state of the President and there was widespread speculation about his general health and the point at which the world would know if he was not in the woods.
In Germany, the main headline of the Bild tabloid asked readers: “Are Trump’s doctors telling the whole truth?” Stoke speculation about the accuracy of his health reports.
Italian media pointed to inconsistencies regarding the timing of his diagnosis.
The reputation of the United States has already eroded under Trump in the traditionally pro-US. Bastion of Europe.
At the beginning of his presidency, Trump hinted that he would withdraw from the NATO military alliance and said some members had not paid off in the body set up as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.
On July 29, the US announced that it would withdraw nearly 12,000 soldiers from Germany, a long-time ally. More than half returned to the United States and the rest spread across the continent. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron warned the US that they would “turn their backs on us”.
Yet America remains vital to Europe.
“The United States is the ultimate guarantor of European security,” said Jonathan Eyal, international director of UK defense and the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank.
“When you have rudderless US these things are going to matter,” added Eyal. “It is still by far the greatest single military and economic power.”
Eyal said there was already growing uncertainty in Europe about the US outlook in the coming months. Trump, who contracted the coronavirus, only increased uncertainty, he said.
The United States’ role in Europe was crucial in countering the threat on its eastern flank, Russia.
Intelligence agencies have found Russia interfering in Western elections, including the United States. Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee said the US electoral infrastructure was unprepared to tackle Russia’s “extensive activities” that began in 2014 and continued through at least 2017.
The July 25 report was released the day after former Special Envoy Robert Mueller warned U.S. lawmakers that he believed Russia would try to meddle in the 2020 campaign again.
“Russia is always opportunistic,” said James Nixey, director of the Russia-Eurasia program at the Chatham House think tank.
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“Russia and the US disagree on almost everything these days,” he added.
In the Middle East, Russia is on the other side of the US on a number of issues, most notably thanks to President Bashar al-Assad’s support in the Syrian civil war.
However, if Trump were seriously incapacitated, it could be “bad news” for the Kremlin, which has viewed its presidency as an “asset” in many ways.
“This is the most pro-Russian … president we have ever known,” he added.
“Vigilant against all adventurism”
In China, the world’s second largest economy and increasingly a US rival on the world stage, official reactions to Trump’s health have been muted.
Chinese President Xi Jinping offered “sympathy” and wished the president a “speedy recovery,” but there was an air of glee in the state media, with some columnists accusing Trump of paying a price for downplaying the pandemic.
Beijing and Washington recently argued over trade, the coronavirus, the autonomy of Hong Kong, China’s regional claims to much of the South China Sea, and human rights abuses against its Uighur Muslim minority.
Even so, Victor Gao, a professor at Soochow University in China, cautioned against attempts to fill a possible void left by an inept American president.
“The world in general should be vigilant against any adventurous spirit and malicious attempts to disrupt peace and development,” said Gao, a former aide to former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
Trump has angered Beijing by repeatedly blaming China for the coronavirus outbreak and using terms like “China virus” to describe the disease, which was first identified in the Chinese city of Wuhan.
So it may come as no surprise that the response to news of Trump’s illness has often been derogatory on Chinese social media. The hashtag #Trump garnered more than 530 million mentions on the Weibo messaging platform – less than 90 minutes later Trump tweeted that he tested positive.
“A good present for our national holiday and lunch festival,” said a Weibo user, as China is in the process of celebrating a national holiday.
Elsewhere, the US 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 the last few weeks Trump has radically reshaped diplomatic relations in the region and brokered “historic” normalization agreements between Israel and two Arab Gulf states.
But among those poised to fill any vacuum are countries like Russia, Turkey and Iran who are pushing for greater geopolitical influence in the region – with Tehran remaining an arch enemy of America’s main allies.
However, Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said he did not expect Trump’s disease to have a profound international impact.
“We have long had mechanisms to empower the Vice President in such situations,” said Goldenberg.
“I think it would be unwise at this point for opponents to start testing the United States, for example.”
Adela Suliman and Saphora Smith reported from London; Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing.