"America First" enters its most combustible moment

The Trump administration is not the only one with agency during this fragile period. Other leaders will continue to perceive opportunity in Trump’s autocrat envy. Having invited Vladimir Putin to undermine his last Democratic rival, Trump is entirely capable of doing it again—and incapable of the kind of firm, consistent approach, and careful coordination with allies, that could be essential to limiting Russian overreach in crises in Belarus or elsewhere. Other authoritarian leaders, including Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey and Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, will be tempted to take advantage of the U.S. while they can still count on Trump’s indulgence.

Meanwhile, the rest of the world will continue to work around, not with, the United States in this terrible pandemic—during which “America First” has come to mean winning in all the wrong categories. American passports, once a symbol of our country’s appeal and reach, will open fewer and fewer doors abroad. Our national-security institutions will continue to be gutted by the Trump administration, our career public servants pilloried as “deep state” political enemies.

If Trump is reelected in November, what happens in the next 150 days in foreign policy will be an insignificant footnote to the end of an American-led international order. If he loses, I doubt that he will suddenly embrace the traditional bipartisan commitment to effective transitions. At best, he’ll be consumed by efforts to rationalize his defeat and paint the election as rigged; at worst, he’ll seek to contest or undermine the result. Like so many other features of the Trump era, the transition would bear little resemblance to any before, or any of the many I served through as a career diplomat. The costs of confusion, mixed signals, and bureaucratic turmoil could be very high.