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How the world reacted to Biden’s ‘disastrous’ debate performance

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Capitals around the world had already been hedging their bets about a second Trump presidency, but that planning is likely to go into overdrive after President Biden’s halting debate performance, diplomats and analysts said Friday, with global leaders increasingly convinced that Trump will win and usher in a sharp break from Biden’s foreign policy.

Diplomats in Washington set up watch parties on Thursday night as they drafted cables to send to their bosses at home. Leaders in distant time zones got up early to watch Biden’s stumbles and Trump’s inaccuracies. And many emerged convinced that the current occupant of the White House will not be resident there much longer, as they considered how to calibrate strategies that would appeal to Trump’s zero-sum view of the world.

For leaders such as Russian President Vladimir Putin, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others who calculate they might get friendlier treatment from a Trump presidency, the incentives to cooperate with a lame-duck Biden White House may fade, analysts said, as U.S. rivals jostle for advantage ahead of a change in policy. Top Biden officials had already been saying that they believed Putin was waiting for the outcome of the election before making any decisions about the future of his war in Ukraine.

“There is a non-trivial incentive for the Kremlin to gain ground before the Trump administration comes in and they have to at least pretend to negotiate,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, the director of the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution. Iran, too, may seek to position itself for advantage ahead of a potentially more confrontational approach from Trump, she said.

Even for U.S. allies whose view of the world generally aligns with Biden’s, incentives to play nice with Trump will increase, as happened during his presidency when NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg regularly praised the U.S. president for his tough language on other countries about their defense spending.

Trump bragged at the debate about Stoltenberg’s strategic praise, saying that “the secretary general of NATO said, ‘Trump did the most incredible job I’ve ever seen.’”

World leaders were left to wonder about Biden’s future.

“Marcus Aurelius was a great emperor but he screwed up his succession,” Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski wrote on X, a rare instance of a sitting allied diplomat making a relatively direct, on-the-record comment about the debate. “It’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset.”

As the debate was underway, diplomats and other global policymakers shared the same real-time thoughts as much of the American audience: Biden and Trump may be separated by only three years, but the current president’s comportment signaled weakness. And Biden’s policy arguments are unlikely to factor much into the vote.

“Initially, Biden looked completely lost,” one diplomat said by text message as the debate was still underway, speaking, like others, on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about the domestic politics of an ally. “As always, it doesn’t matter what you say but how you say it and how it looks.”

European politicians, who have long been the target of Trump’s most withering foreign policy criticism over trade policy and defense spending, said they would need to accelerate the planning and policies already underway to adjust for a Trump return to the White House.

“This night will not be forgotten. The Democrats have to rethink their choices now. And Germany must prepare at full speed for an uncertain future. If we don’t take responsibility for European security now, no one will,” Norbert Röttgen, a top ally of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, wrote on X.

Foreign leaders had already been pushing for audiences with top Trump foreign policy advisers and surrogates, trying to understand his possible policies and lobby for their own interests. British Foreign Secretary David Cameron visited Trump in Mar-a-Lago in the spring. Polish President Andrzej Duda dined with Trump in New York in April, a month after Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán met with the former president.

Foreign visitors to Washington in recent days have been courting Trump’s camp. In addition to their meetings with sitting Democratic officials, they often seek meetings with conservative foreign policy strategists such as Keith Kellogg, who was former vice president Mike Pence’s national security adviser; Elbridge Colby, a Trump-era Pentagon official; and others who are known to speak to Trump about international affairs. Many have sought out panel discussions at conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, which has assembled Republican thought leaders to plan a presidential transition.

One senior European diplomat boiled his country’s Trump strategy down to three pillars: alignment with his hard-nosed China policy, increased spending on defense, and investment inside the United States.

“The process has been ongoing, I can tell you,” the diplomat said.

With Biden managing the substantial U.S. involvement in two major wars in Ukraine and Gaza, allies and opponents will be calibrating their own strategies around the American election calendar.

Trump promised as much during the debate, declaring that if he wins, even before taking office he would resolve the conflict in Ukraine and arrange for the freedom of Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, who has been unjustly imprisoned in Russia since March 2023. (A Kremlin spokesman declared Friday that Putin slept through the debate and that it was an internal matter of the United States.)

In the Middle East, hopes for a cease-fire in Gaza are diminishing and fears about a broader war between Israel and Hezbollah are increasing, as Netanyahu seems ever more likely to be able to hold on to office past the U.S. elections in November. Trump and Netanyahu had close relations when the two coincided in office, although feathers were ruffled when Netanyahu acknowledged Biden’s 2020 election victory as Trump continued to fight the outcome. Netanyahu has laced into Biden over what he says are the slow pace of weapons shipments — an issue the Biden administration contests but will continue to be fraught as the war drags on and the U.S. president’s prospects weaken, analysts said.

“Fairly disastrous. That’s the only way to sum it up,” said former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt on X. He posted a link to an analysis of Trump’s second-term foreign policy written by the European Council on Foreign Relations, which he co-chairs.

“I wish this @ecfr analysis should be less required reading, but that’s not the case. Now it definitely is required reading,” Bildt wrote.

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