NEW DELHI — The last American president to visit India got precisely the celebratory welcome he wanted: billboards featuring Donald Trump and tens of thousands of people jammed into the world’s largest cricket stadium.
Trump is gone, and the billboards are now odes to India's prime minister, Narendra Modi. But Trump's possible return to power looms over the G20 summit in New Delhi this weekend, where President Joe Biden and other leaders of the wealthiest nations will plot ways to curb climate change, reduce global poverty and end the war between Russia and Ukraine.
Sustained progress on these fronts may hinge on the 2024 U.S. presidential race. A Trump victory would shatter the internationalist approach that Biden has pursued in favor of an “America First” foreign policy that could upend old alliances, turning friends into foes and foes into partners.
As president, Trump described his relationship with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un as a love affair while insulting democratically elected leaders of Canada, France and Germany. Last month, he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin, the West’s longtime adversary: “I was the apple of his eye.”
Heading into the Group of 20 meeting of leading rich and developing nations, White House officials implicitly warned that the world can’t afford another four years of Trump. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, said in a press briefing before the trip that Trump’s decision to pull out of a deal meant to stop Iran from developing a nuclear bomb derailed that effort. Mirroring Biden’s habit of not mentioning Trump by name, Sullivan said: “Iran’s nuclear program was in a box. The last guy let it out of the box. We are now trying to manage the results of that decision.”
Sullivan suggested that Trump also blundered in thinking that personal diplomacy would persuade Kim to relinquish his nuclear arsenal. Not only did Kim hang on to the weapons, “North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs had accelerated dramatically,” Sullivan said.
“The most important breakthrough we had seen from them — the first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile — that didn’t happen on Joe Biden’s watch; that happened before he came to office,” he added.
Biden arrived Friday night for the two-day summit and will fly to Vietnam on Sunday as part of a broader effort to contain Beijing by strengthening ties to neighboring countries that feel threatened by China’s rise. Chinese President Xi Jinping has chosen to skip the summit and thus pass up a chance to talk to Biden in person — one more sign of the sour state of relations between the world’s two leading powers.
“That’s a lost opportunity because, God knows, the world needs these two leaders to communicate,” said Daniel Russel, a former assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific Affairs in the Obama administration. “Xi Jinping hasn’t even returned Biden’s phone call over these many months when Biden announced he wanted one.”
How Trump might handle Xi next time around is uncertain. His campaign says that he would impose tariffs on foreign producers and “completely eliminate U.S. dependence on China.” Even so, Trump heaped praise on China’s authoritarian leader over the summer. In a town hall event with Fox News, Trump said Xi is “smart, brilliant — everything perfect.”
Xi runs “1.4 billion people with an iron fist,” Trump said.
Trump has argued that Biden has coddled China, but allies of the sitting president say Trump is besotted with autocrats.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who as a former House speaker attended G20 meetings of parliamentary leaders, spoke to NBC News about what another Trump presidency would mean for global relations. “It would be a complete disaster because of his lack of respect for our allies and for his worshipping at the throne of Putin,” she said.
“Donald Trump is a threat” to democracy, Pelosi added. “I hate to use his name, but he is a threat to democracy globally and at home. That can’t even happen. We have to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
There is no doubt that the American election is on the minds of Biden’s counterparts at the summit. It’s certainly on their constituents’ minds back home.
Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the U.S. and Americas program at Chatham House, a think tank based in London, said that whenever Trump gets indicted or makes announcements, “Everyone stops and imagines what might lie ahead.” In her circles, she added, “Every single email thread, every single conference ends or begins with, ‘Where is America going? What’s going to happen to America? Is Trump coming back?’”
Diplomats past and present say their governments are watching the campaign unfold and speculating whether Trump can overcome his legal troubles and reclaim the presidency.
Such speculation includes moves by foreign leaders that could conceivably harm Biden's re-election chances.
“I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Vladimir Putin or [Saudi Arabian leader] Mohammed bin Salman do everything they can to make sure oil and gas prices are good and high next summer,” said John Emerson, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, said. “But that can be anticipated and addressed.”
For the leaders assembled in New Delhi, mentioning an election that could so profoundly reshape the international order will call for discretion. Biden is on the ballot, after all, and defeat would be a chastening end to a long political career.
No one is apt to approach Biden and ask point blank whether he’s worried, foreign policy experts said. Rather, they might politely raise the issue by expressing the hope that Biden returns for future G20 summits, Josh Lipsky of the Atlantic Council think tank said at a recent press briefing.
But the campaign is certain to come up. If the leaders don’t talk about it among themselves, they’re bound to get asked about it by the large international news media contingent.
“I don’t know the degree to which they [Biden's counterparts] would raise that with President Biden directly,” said Matthew Turpin, who served as director for China in the National Security Council in the Trump White House. “I suspect his response would be, ‘Yeah, I plan to win.’”
CORRECTION (Sept. 12, 2023, 1:45 p.m. ET): This article misattributed a quote about Biden’s trip to Vietnam and India. It was from Matthew Turpin, former China director for the National Security Council in the Trump White House, not Matthew Pottinger, former deputy national security adviser in the Trump White House.