“It has been like a roller coaster,” said Margot Wallstrom, who was Sweden’s foreign minister until last year, including when Trump mysteriously warned his supporters “you look at what’s happening last night in Sweden.”
“It’s erratic behavior from the president and his team,” Wallstrom said, “so you never know how this might end.”
Trump spent four years dismantling U.S. policies that many Europeans consider key to their security interests. Sometimes, policymakers here felt, he made decisions specifically because he knew it would infuriate them. They were shattered when he pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. They have spent years holding together the Iran nuclear deal, which has been faltering ever since Trump denounced it and slapped new sanctions on Tehran. They have been exasperated by his admiration for authoritarian leaders and his distaste for them.
And when they have been the target of his funhouse-mirror approach to distorting the truth, they have found it deeply disconcerting, such as when Swedes found themselves searching for what, exactly, had happened the previous evening in their country.
“When we heard it, we wondered, ‘What? What happened last night?’ ” Wallstrom said. Trump later said he was referring to a misinformation-filled segment about Swedish migration that he had seen on Fox News.
Trump is not universally disliked in Europe. His 2016 election gave a jolt of energy to the continent’s populists. The right-wing leaders of Poland and Hungary — who have been sanctioned by the European Union for dismantling courts and undermining their opponents — get along well with him. The far-right prime minister of Slovenia fired off a tweet this past week declaring Trump’s victory.
But most leaders here will be glad to see Trump’s back and eager to trade him in for a more conventional counterpart.
“You had people working in the White House, all the way up to the national security adviser, who would sometimes be completely surprised by decisions the president had taken,” said Boris Ruge, who was Germany’s deputy ambassador in Washington until last year.
Once, Ruge said, he was at the White House discussing Iran policy when there was a “substantial” announcement from the president on the Iran nuclear deal that people working on the file weren’t aware of. “At the end of the day, on a whole range of issues, you could not be sure of U.S. policy until you had heard it from the president himself,” he said. “That was different.”
Biden’s “first-day” promises alone could fill a European wish list. He has said he will immediately rejoin the World Health Organization by executive order. Same for the Paris climate accord, only he says he wants to make it tougher.
“Day 1, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying we’re back,” he told Phoenix TV station KPNX in July. “We’re back and you can count on us again.”
Biden wants to return to the Iran nuclear deal, too, though that may take more time.
But with Trump allies still in control of the Senate, at least for now, and making gains in the House and in state legislatures across the country, some Europeans say a Biden presidency may only offer temporary respite from a United States that is more permanently inward-looking and skeptical about global entanglements. And there is bipartisan agreement in Washington on issues ranging from the need for greater European defense spending to fears about China’s role in the world, issues that have fueled tensions in the Trump era and won’t go away in a Biden presidency.
“The relief that many people feel here should not crowd out the fact that those people are there. Trump has created a movement that will continue,” Ruge said. Given that Europe will still have to work with both sides of the aisle, some of the more gleeful comments from Berlin have been “not well-advised,” he said.
Still, few European policymakers are likely to miss contorting themselves to mollify Trump’s moods. At NATO, diplomats carefully choreographed their summits to reduce the chances that, in a huff, the U.S. president would pull out of the alliance.
U.S. diplomats “would ask us not to compliment him too much when we met him in person at the summit,” said Tomas Valasek, a Slovak lawmaker who was his country’s ambassador to NATO ahead of the first summit with Trump in 2017. “His own diplomats didn’t want him to know too much about what his own administration was doing for NATO and against Russia, because they didn’t think the president would approve.”
After Trump deliberately avoided mentioning the foundational all-for-one, one-for-all defense pledge at the 2017 summit, diplomats the following year signed on to a wide-ranging set of agreements ahead of a second summit so that Trump couldn’t derail them. He still nearly did, by threatening not to defend countries if leaders didn’t increase their military spending on the spot.
By last year, the NATO summit had been shortened to half a day — the better to avoid Trump’s mischief — and moved to London, so he wouldn’t be infuriated by NATO’s expensive new headquarters in Brussels, diplomats said.
“We know his instincts are to take the United States out of NATO, so there is a sense of relief,” Valasek said. “Whatever the Biden era can throw at us will be better than the uncertainty of whether the alliances will be around at all.”
The election shows a country “more divided than ever,” said Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the foreign policy committee in the German parliament and a contender to take over Christian Democratic party leadership from Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Overcoming these rifts will take a lot of time and energy for the Biden administration,” he said.
He said he welcomed a return to “multinational cooperation” and that he expected changes in climate and foreign policy. “But there will be no return to the good old days,” he said.
Among leaders who have dealt with Trump and his subordinates, there is excitement about a return to more conventional diplomacy. At a meeting last year of foreign ministers of the Arctic Council, which is composed of countries that ring the Arctic, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo disrupted the proceedings when he refused to mention climate change in the routine declaration that gives diplomats their marching orders after such gatherings, said Wallstrom, the former Swedish foreign minister.
Climate change “was of course part of every discussion, it was part of every story about what life is like for people who live in the Arctic zone,” she said. “This was totally absurd.”
In the end, the meeting broke up without an agreement.
“It was an insensitivity that I have almost never experienced,” she said. “It was just horrible, just awful. They just imposed their power onto everyone else.”