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Big foreign policy changes are coming if Trump loses

Illustration of the world as a puzzle with pieces partially put together
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The Democratic presidential candidates have stark differences on a number of issues, but on foreign policy there are big changes they'd all be almost certain to make.

The big picture: Trump’s unusually cozy ties with Saudi Arabia and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, his warm words for Russia’s Vladimir Putin and North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, and his adversarial relationships with allies are all ripe for course corrections from day one.

  • On Iran, the leading Democrats are all hitting virtually the same notes. The only division on display in the debates was over whether to rejoin the Obama-era nuclear deal or negotiate an extension first.
  • Expect an early trip to Europe, Canada or Mexico from any Trump successor to send a signal that the U.S. stands by its allies.

Of course, the debates that have raged in U.S. foreign policy for decades — when to use military force, whether to sign on to trade deals — will continue.

  • Some of the candidates, Joe Biden for example, talk about building on Barack Obama’s foreign policy. Others, like Bernie Sanders, emphasize protecting workers and cutting defense spending.
  • But there are a number of issues on which it's “more about flipping a switch” than establishing new policies, says Ned Price of National Security Action, a group founded by former Obama administration officials that’s advising Democratic candidates on foreign policy. He says one of those is resetting relations between the White House and the intelligence community.

Between the lines: Many countries — allies and adversaries alike — are trying to wait Trump out.

  • The Iranians believe they can survive under “maximum pressure” through 2020. Experts tell Axios they don’t even have a clear plan for a second term of Trump.
  • European leaders seem to be hedging their bets, talking more about autonomy and collective security, while quietly hoping Trump is an aberration.
  • Others have placed big bets on Trump. “If Trump loses, the Saudis are screwed,” one Middle Eastern diplomat tells Axios.

But, but, but: By the time Inauguration Day rolls around in 2021, it will be “too late to turn back the clock” on the most daunting challenges the U.S. faces, says Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

  • He says “elements of Trumpism,” possibly on trade, could carry over into the next administration. In any case, he says, the next president will be “constrained by the fact that the world has moved on.”
  • “Even if the next American president sends reassuring signals, rejoins this or that, there’s still now an element of doubt about U.S. policy. There’s no longer the presumption of continuity that there was, and there’s a sense in the world that if it happened once it can happen again.”