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Trump Covid-19 diagnosis puts America's friends and foes on alert

The election and the president's illness create "a very significant internal distraction that adversaries could take advantage of," a former U.S. ambassador said.
Image: China's President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and President Donald Trump attend a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in November 2017.Fred Dufour / AFP via Getty Images file

LONDON — Ripples of alarm, and some glee, coursed around the globe after President Donald Trump's Covid-19 diagnosis emerged, with U.S. allies and foes weighing whether the president's condition was a dangerous distraction or an opportunity.

If adversaries like Russia's Vladimir Putin, North Korea's Kim Jong Un or China's Xi Jinping "were looking for a moment to test American resolve abroad, they might be tempted by a moment when the U.S. leadership situation was so precarious," said Dan Shapiro, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel.

Trump's medical team said Sunday that his condition was improving after multiple "episodes" over the weekend, while disclosing that Trump was placed on a steroid therapy typically used in more severe Covid-19 cases.

Even before the news broke early Friday, America was turned inward, focused on the looming presidential election.

"Add to that the possibility of a president being incapacitated ... that creates a very significant internal distraction that adversaries could take advantage of," Shapiro said.

With less than 30 days to go until the election, the Trump administration's "America First" foreign policy is widely established. But because it is the world's main superpower militarily, economically and culturally, no other leader's health has the same impact on global affairs as the American president's.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that he had talked to more than half a dozen world leaders over the past few days, all of whom told the president and the first lady to get well.

"We know there's rogue actors. We know there's malign actors around the world," he said in a response to a question from the news media. "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 it has long led efforts to counter Russia, contain North Korea's nuclear ambitions and, more recently, try to deal with Turkey's growing regional influence. Meanwhile, Washington-Beijing ties have been strained by a trade war, the coronavirus pandemic and U.S. reaction to China's increasing assertiveness.

The world was already bracing itself for an uncertain presidential election during a global pandemic, and the president's being sick only compounds an overwhelming sense of unpredictability about the coming months, political analysts said.

That Trump's health dominated front pages and newscasts around the world underlines the outsize influence of the American presidency.

London's Sunday Times called out "confusion" over the president's condition, and there was widespread speculation about his overall health and when the world would know whether he was out of the woods.

In Germany, the tabloid Bild's main headline asked readers: "Are Trump's doctors telling the full truth?" stoking speculation about the accuracy of his health reports.

Italian media highlighted contradictions around the timing of his diagnosis.

'Ultimate guarantor'

The United States' standing has already eroded under Trump in Europe, a traditionally pro-U.S. bastion.

Early in his presidency, Trump hinted that he would withdraw from the NATO military alliance, saying some members weren't paying their way in the body set up as a bulwark against the Soviet Union.

On July 29, the U.S. announced that it would withdraw almost 12,000 troops from Germany, a long-standing ally, with more than half returning to the U.S. and the rest dispersed across Europe. Last year, French President Emmanuel Macron warned that the U.S. was "turning its back on us."

Still, America remains vital to Europe.

"The United States is the ultimate guarantor of European security," said Jonathan Eyal, associate director of strategic research partnerships and international director at the Royal United Services Institute, a security think tank.

"If you have a rudderless United States, then these things will matter," Eyal said. "It's still by far the biggest single military power and economic power."

Eyal said there was already growing insecurity in Europe about the prospects of the U.S. in the coming months. Trump's contracting the coronavirus merely compounded the uncertainty, he said.

The United States' role in Europe has been vital in trying to counter the threat on its eastern flank, Russia.

Intelligence services have found that Russia interfered in Western elections, including the United States'. Last year, the Senate Intelligence Committee said the U.S. election infrastructure was unprepared to combat "extensive activity" by Russia, which began in 2014 and carried on at least into 2017.

The report was issued July 25, a day after former special counsel Robert Mueller warned U.S. lawmakers that he believed Russia would seek to interfere in the 2020 campaign.

"Russia is always opportunistic," said James Nixey, head of the Russia-Eurasia program at the think tank Chatham House.

"Russia and the U.S. disagree on almost everything these days," he added.

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In the Middle East, Russia is on the opposite side of the U.S. on a number of issues, most notably by backing President Bashar al-Assad in the Syrian civil war.

Still, if Trump was seriously incapacitated, it could be "bad news" for the Kremlin, which has in many ways viewed his presidency as an "asset," Nixey said.

"This is the most pro-Russian ... president we have ever known," he said.

'Vigilant against any adventurism'

In China, which is home to the world's second-largest economy and is increasingly a rival to the U.S. on the world stage, official reactions to Trump's health were muted.

Xi, the president, offered "sympathy" and wished Trump a "speedy recovery," but there was a whiff of schadenfreude in state media, with some columnists asserting that Trump was paying a price for having played down the pandemic.

Beijing and Washington have recently clashed over trade, the coronavirus, Hong Kong's autonomy, China's regional claims on much of the South China Sea and its human rights abuses toward its Uighur Muslim minority.

Even so, Victor Gao, a professor at China's Soochow University, warned against any attempts to fill a possible void left by an incapacitated American president.

"The world at large should be vigilant against any adventurism and any vicious attempts to disrupt peace and development," said Gao, who was an aide to a previous 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 is perhaps no surprise that on Chinese social media, the response to the news of Trump's illness was often snide. The hashtag #Trump racked up more than 530 million mentions on the messaging platform Weibo less than 90 minutes after Trump tweeted that he had tested positive.

"A good gift to our national day and midautumn festival," Weibo user said as China is in the middle of celebrating a national holiday.

Elsewhere, the U.S. remains a major player in the Middle East. And for decades, it has stood behind the leaders of some Arab states, including the rulers of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

In recent weeks, Trump has radically refashioned diplomatic relationships in the region, brokering "historic" normalization deals between Israel and two Persian Gulf Arab states.

But among those ready to fill any vacuum are countries pushing for greater geopolitical influence in the region, like Russia, Turkey and Iran — with Tehran remaining an archenemy of America's key allies.

However, Ilan Goldenberg, director of the Middle East security program at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank, said he didn't expect Trump's illness to have profound international implications.

"We have long-held mechanisms for empowering the vice president in situations like this," Goldenberg said.

"I think it would be unwise at this moment for, let's say, adversaries to start testing the United States."

Adela Suliman and Saphora Smith reported from London; Eric Baculinao reported from Beijing.