Opinion & Analysis

Imagining Trump 2.0: Six scary policy scenarios for a second term

Donald Trump remains erratic and inconsistent when it comes to foreign policy. But the broader Republican foreign policy ecosystem forming around his administration is increasingly clear and organised. This ecosystem comprises three main “tribes” – restrainers who want US foreign policy to focus on America; prioritisers who want it to focus on Asia; and primacists who want it to continue to focus globally. We used ideas that come from all three tribes, and the Trump campaign itself, to imagine six scary scenarios for US foreign policy and their implications for Europe. These scenarios imagine futures for Ukraine, the South China Sea, strategic industrial policy, NATO, the Middle East, and an illiberal internationale. None of the scenarios is inevitable, but they are all derived from Republican ideas and are at least plausible Europeans are not prepared for these scenarios and, given their current divides over the US and the appropriate response to Trump, will struggle to respond to them collectively. What they can do is to prepare some contingencies for what might happen and understand how personnel choices and intra-Republican debates could shape the foreign policy of another Trump presidency.

Imagining the Trump presidency
These are difficult times. The Russian threat has returned to Europe while a brutal war rages in the Middle East. Populism is sweeping across the European continent, China seems increasingly scary, and nobody can stop looking at their phones. But in this maelstrom of woes, one prospect frightens European policymakers more than anything else: the return of Donald Trump to the US presidency.

The prospect is certainly real. As of May 2024, Trump leads in the polls nationally and in five out of the six key swing states. And so is the European trauma. Europeans are still licking their wounds from Trump’s first term: they have not forgotten the former president’s tariffs, his deep antagonism towards the European Union and Germany, or the US withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal. Nor have they recovered from Trump’s general boorishness at international summits, not to mention his regular threats to withdraw from NATO.

Beyond these flashbacks, Europeans are predominantly worried about the security implications of a second Trump presidency. Trump’s renewed threat to withdraw from NATO, his encouragement of Russian attacks on “delinquent” NATO members, and his claim that he could resolve the war in Ukraine in 24 hours take on even more resonance against the backdrop of Russia’s aggression. The fact that the nations of Europe cannot defend themselves without resorting to NATO and the help of the United States has never been more obvious; and yet, it has never been less certain that the US commitment to European security will remain firm.

But if Trump is elected, the implications for Europe will go well beyond the issues of Ukraine and European security. The Trump administration will challenge European policymakers across a range of issues: from China to trade, climate to the Middle East. Worse, another nightmare lurks beneath the potential foreign policy shocks: an international coalition that could emerge as a framework for populists in Europe to establish special ties with Trump’s Washington. Trump’s re-election might well embolden the populist right in Europe to obstruct common EU policies and initiatives more forcefully. They may also seek US endorsement for far-right parties in national elections, including in Germany and Poland in 2025.

Of course, the American people might still re-elect Joe Biden, but it seems only prudent to think about what will happen if they don’t. To guide Europeans in this task, we have developed six imagined foreign policy scenarios that could take place in the first year or so of a second Trump term. The scenarios build on Trump’s own statements and those of his campaign, numerous private conversations and workshops we have held with Republican thinkers, as well as policy ideas emanating from Republican think-tanks. As a tribute to the AI-enhanced fever dream that may lie ahead, we have created images using ChatGPT to illustrate each scenario. This would not have been possible just a couple of years ago, and serves as a signpost of our AI-powered future.

The broader ecosystem of Republican thought will matter a great deal for a new Trump administration’s foreign policy. Trump controls the Republican party. He dominates the party’s politics, drives its public narrative, and determines the range of acceptable opinion. But Trump remains as inconsistent and incoherent as ChatGPT on many if not most foreign policy issues.

Within the broad limits that Trump sets, personnel will be policy, which is to say that the people he appoints to key positions will have an enormous impact on the administration’s foreign policy. But no one, probably including Trump himself, knows who those people will be. In this report, we take a guess at his main foreign policy picks, but these are highly speculative. An understanding of broader Republican thought will serve a more useful role in predicting Trump’s foreign policy than the usual parlour game of guessing who the next national security advisor or secretary of state will be.

Three main Republican foreign policy camps or “tribes” currently vie for influence: the “primacists”, the “prioritisers”, and the “restrainers”. The dominant segment in the Congressional caucus and among the Washington establishment are the traditional primacists. They support continued US global leadership and a large US military footprint around the world. The restrainers, who want a radical reduction in the US security role abroad, arguably have the support of the Republican base. The prioritisers enjoy less support among voters. But their calls for US foreign policy to focus tightly on Asia and China are having an increasingly outsized influence in foreign policy circles.

Trump himself has moved erratically between all three camps in the nine years since he began running for president. In his campaign for the 2024 election, he has publicly distanced himself from the primacist camp, branding them “globalists” and “warmongers”. But all three camps will have influence in his administration and they will remain in ideological competition with each other. They are all focused on forming a coherent foreign policy narrative that will appeal to Trump’s instincts and interests – a sort of “battle for Trump’s mind”. They are all seeking to install (or to be) the political appointees that will drive Trump’s second-term foreign policy agenda.

The six scenarios reflect our understanding of the balance of power between the three tribes on the given issue as well as Trump’s occasionally consistent positions. They are, in our humble opinion, eminently plausible. However, these scenarios are also very far from inevitable and solely designed to stimulate thought. Rather than making predictions, they simply point out what could plausibly go wrong. Our hope is that the possibilities will encourage Europeans to consider how they can approach the very difficult trade-offs that may lie ahead. Maybe they can even get people to stop looking at their phones so much.

Ukraine: Minsk 3.0
Donald Trump seems to hate Ukraine almost as much as he admires Vladimir Putin. He blames the country for his first impeachment, his election defeat in 2020, and for “covering up” Biden’s supposed crooked dealings in Ukraine. Trump’s restrainer instincts are particularly strong on the Ukraine war: he wants out. He has promised to “end the war in 24 hours”, claiming he could get both sides to make a deal. No one knows what such a deal would entail, although the past offers some clues, particularly Trump’s first-term outreach to North Korea. The president would likely expect Europeans to fall in line with his “historic peace deal” or start dealing with the war by themselves.

On the first full day of Trump’s second term in office, the president announced his intention to make a deal to end the war in Ukraine. “That war has to be stopped,” he noted, as he had during the campaign. “It is a disaster that wastes our money. Ukraine is not America’s responsibility, and we have other problems. Biden’s Russia policy only helped China, North Korea, and Iran.” Ten days later, after the president’s first phone call with President Vladimir Putin, Trump told the press that “Putin was very firm that he wants to do this. I think he might want to do this even more than me.”

As usual, Trump said very little about how he intended to achieve his goals. His freshly installed cabinet seemed divided on the question. Various sources leaked to the press that US intelligence was reporting very few substantial differences between Russia, China, North Korea, and Iran on Ukraine. Secretary of state Robert O’Brien seemed wary of pushing a deal, but quickly embarked on a trip to Ukraine and major European capitals to hold consultations on the process.

In those meetings, O’Brien emphasised that the US and its allies had always said that the war should end in negotiations, so now was the time to start. He hinted strongly that at the core of the US approach to the deal was de facto acceptance of Russian control of the occupied parts of Ukraine. NATO membership for Ukraine would be off the table, at least for the time being. And Europeans had to be on board with the broad contours of a summit, otherwise the US would need to reconsider its role in European security.

O’Brien also confessed that the Trump administration had not yet fully thought through all the aspects of a settlement and Ukraine’s future. These included the possibility of a peacekeeping or monitoring force, Ukraine’s accession to the EU, the country’s bilateral security arrangements with the West, and an economic development and reconstruction plan for Ukraine. Also largely unexamined were the disposition of Russian sovereign assets and the question of sanctions relief.

At the beginning of March 2025, the Trump administration submitted a new budget to Congress that included over $30 billion in aid to Ukraine. Trump used the press conference announcing the budget to state his intention to bring together Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky and Putin for a meeting to resolve the conflict. “This aid only goes to Ukraine if Zelensky helps me to end this war. But if Russia opposes this beautiful idea, there can be a lot more aid to Ukraine.” His speech was accompanied by a slick video portraying him, Putin, and Zelensky as peacemakers.

A week later, letters went out to Putin and Zelensky proposing a trilateral summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in May – without preconditions. The US Department of State invited European leaders to declare their support for the process and announce what they were ready to do for it to succeed.

The Russian response was muted. In a press conference, Kremlin spokesman Dmitri Peskov noted that Russia had always been willing to negotiate and could consider the meeting if it met Russia’s core security interests. At a minimum, this would involve Ukraine recognising Russia’s new “constitutional territories” – Crimea, Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia. Zelensky stated he would only consider the summit if Russia recognised Ukrainian sovereignty over its internationally recognised territory and began to withdraw its forces. The White House spokesperson responded that Trump would meet with whomever showed up.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian government communicated to various European leaders that Trump was pressing Zelensky to give up sovereignty over the regions Russia had illegally annexed, or else risk losing US aid. In an ensuing phone call between Washington and Berlin, Trump’s new national security advisor Richard Grenell threatened the withdrawal of US troops from Europe if Germany objected the plan. He also made clear that the US expected Germany and the EU to take full responsibility for financing Ukraine’s reconstruction and providing security guarantees. The US might consider assisting with loans, but under the precondition that European contracts remained open for US companies.

As the negotiations over these negotiations continued, backchannel envoys from the Kremlin arrived in Paris and Berlin. The envoys indicated Putin’s openness to a summit. They hinted that the “official performing the duties of the CIA director”, Kash Patel, had told them Trump would demand an end to Russia’s military modernisation efforts with Iran as the price of the deal, but that this would be accompanied by economic incentives. The envoys also expressed reservations about whether Trump could get his NATO allies or even the US Congress to go along with the deal. They wanted to understand European attitudes towards the idea and towards sanctions relief in the event a negotiation began.

About the Authors
Célia Belin is a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and head of its Paris office. She is a former visiting fellow at the Center on the United States and Europe at the Brookings Institution, in Washington, DC, and she briefly served as the interim director of the Center in 2022. She also served as an adviser on US affairs in the policy planning unit (CAPS) of the French foreign ministry between 2012-2017.

Majda Ruge is a senior policy fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations in Berlin. Between 2017-2019, she was a research fellow at the Foreign Policy Institute, School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, DC.

Jeremy Shapiro is the director of research at the European Council on Foreign Relations and a non-resident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He served at the US State Department between 2009-2013.

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