They also don’t want to talk about a potential Trump 2.0 on the record or much at all. And believe me, I tried. (“But how do you feel?” I fruitlessly pleaded with one foreign minister.) Still, when granted anonymity, some were willing to discuss the possible changes in store, offering this increasingly desperate reporter a sense of the general mood.
One thing that was clear: If the world can’t have Biden or another Democrat who believes in multilateralism, alliances and the reality of a climate crisis, then it will be happy to settle for any Republican other than Trump. Nikki Haley, Trump’s former ambassador to the United Nations, is a particular favorite.
“If diplomats had to choose among the Republicans, they’d pick Haley. But that’s hope over reality,” one European diplomat told me on the sidelines of the annual General Assembly gathering.
Haley both endeared and alienated many at the United Nations.
She was staunchly pro-Israel, for example, which frustrated many countries that worry about the Palestinians. But Haley also sometimes emphasized humanitarian issues, putting her at odds with Trump’s overall thinking but in sync with many developing countries. (Many of Haley’s U.N. moves, foreign diplomats note, seemed calculated to help her future in U.S. politics.)
But U.N. officials follow polls and recognize that Haley and other GOP contenders are far behind the former president, despite the multiple criminal indictments hanging over him. Whatever their preferences, the U.N. crowd is “more focused on a potential return of Trump,” said one diplomat at the world body.
I also found that foreign officials are not ignorant of how a Trump return could undermine many international efforts of the last few years, even if they choose to stay publicly silent about it. (It is a standard talking point among diplomats that they do not discuss another country’s internal politics — one I repeatedly dismissed as I grilled foreign officials.)
They already experienced Trump for four years, and they know he is steadfastly isolationist in some ways — for example, he’s not a fan of massive multiparty trade deals. But he’s also unpredictable because he’s willing to do once unimaginable things: taking migrant children away from their parents, for instance.
“We won’t be surprised by the fact that there are surprises,” one Western European official predicted.
Some argued that world leaders are less apt to trust that Trump will come through for them given his track record of abandoning agreements and ignoring norms. “You can only get away with such stunts for so long,” a Latin American official said.
That doesn’t mean foreign officials are going to start shifting their focus, strategizing and policymaking this soon in the U.S. campaign cycle. There’s a perfectly good chance that Biden will be reelected, not to mention that some international leaders in power now won’t be in 2025. So officials don’t see much to gain from early planning or worrying.
Another problem, some diplomats say privately, is that if their countries make visible policy moves that indicate they are preparing for a Trump or other Republican presidency, that could upset Biden and his aides — the ones they need to work with right now. Even small moves — such as delaying certain talks with Biden — could be interpreted as attempts to influence U.S. politics.
Still, foreign embassies in Washington are — as is standard in diplomacy — establishing contacts with the GOP campaigns. Some governments also are going further to better understand the U.S. heartland that has propelled Trump and other right-wing Republicans to power.
This month, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made a very public visit to Texas, where she met with Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, a strident opponent of the Biden administration.
The biggest fear I heard among America’s closest allies is that Trump will end U.S. military support for Ukraine as it fights off a brutal Russian invasion. He already was impeached — but not convicted — once due to his efforts to halt aid to Ukraine. He and Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin also appear to be mutual fans.
“The last kind of crisis like this was the Second World War,” one European minister said of Ukraine when pressed on the potential return of Trump. “It is existential that we must respond … and the U.S. is playing a huge role here.”
The minister expressed hope in the U.S. system in part because so many Republicans still support Ukraine. Other diplomats were quick to mention that even if Trump wins the presidency, control of Congress also matters.
Ukrainian officials are especially wary of talking about a Trump return.
“We’ve been in this business for many years, and we’ve learned the lesson that it is better to stay away from the internal politics of the United States,” a senior Ukrainian official said. “We’ll be working with the choice of the American people.”
Let’s not forget that Trump has some fans among world leaders beyond Putin.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán recently told far-right media personality Tucker Carlson that the only way to end Russia’s war on Ukraine is to put Trump back in power.
“Call back Trump. … Trump is the man who can save the Western world,” Orban said in the interview posted in August.
But what about the rest of the world? Here is where diplomats get really tense, even when they sidestep questions about Trump.
Countries in Latin America, Africa and parts of Asia that tend not to get much attention in U.S. politics are among those that value multilateralism most and are keenest on a global effort to counter threats such as climate change.
Trump did not do these nations many favors during his first term. He called some of them “shithole” countries.
Their leaders haven’t forgotten, the Latin American official said. He pointed out that in his region, “the political landscape has shifted left” producing leaders who will be less receptive to a Trump who tries to bully them.
I started out the week wondering if the people gathered at the United Nations were ignoring the seismic changes in store should Trump return to the White House — or maybe deluding themselves that it would be different this time.
But I am ending it knowing they’re not. They’re just accustomed to dealing with change, chaos and crisis — it’s their job — and the Trump challenge is something they can worry about later.
Besides, what else can they do? They have to deal with whoever is in charge of the United States, because, just like a soaring Trump building hangs over the U.N. complex, America is always hovering over the world.
All that said, this was the last “normal” General Assembly gathering of world leaders before the U.S. campaign hits high gear. Next year, no matter what Biden says at the U.N. podium, his audience will wonder if it’s his last such speech and if a topsy-turvy Trump world lies ahead.
So I can’t entirely blame the diplomatic set here for wanting to enjoy these final moments of calm.