The fear of chaos erupting in the world once Donald Trump settles into the Oval Office, probably needs some historical perspective.

From a historian's point of view, we're doing all right.

BBC history presenter Dan Snow tweeted at the weekend: "World is absolutely not in chaos. Compared to the past it's unimaginably peaceful & prosperous. Pessimism fuels Trumps."


But for months or longer, there's been a sense of a mostly orderly and predictable period of time coming to an end and something new and dubious beginning.

Advertisement

Irritating political norms that were dull but provided stability now look paper thin. Can a policy or long-time understanding now get overturned in just 140 characters by Trump on Twitter?

Various institutions, traditions and assumptions that seemed to hold it all together have never looked so inadequate - eroded by the anger, apathy and complacency out there, everywhere.

These days Trump is able to shake political capitals in Europe and dent company profits (Lockheed Martin, BMW etc) with a few words in an interview or a tweet, such is the nervousness at what he intends and the loose style with which he tosses away opinions.

On Tuesday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said: "We Europeans have our fate in our hands".

She was reacting to Trump's comments about Nato ("obsolete" but also "important"), the EU (prepare for Brexit sequels) and herself (made a "catastrophic mistake" about refugees).

In the same interview with the Times and Bild, Trump put Merkel on the same level as Russia's President Vladimir Putin, even though Berlin is a key US ally and Moscow is a difficult rival power, usually dealt with at arms length. "I start off trusting both but let's see how long that lasts," he said. "It may not last long at all."

Statements that were once seen as part of the tumble of campaign politics take on a different light when uttered by a man days away from being the leader of the free world. Former US ambassador to Nato Ivo Daalder tweeted: "Trump is more critical of Nato, EU, & Germany--all close allies--than he's ever been of Putin & Russia.

We're entering an upside down world." But Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, told the New York Times: "I take all of this with a pinch of salt. I think Trump is trying to keep his options open and not be cornered by simply standing up for existing policy positions."

President-elect Donald Trump. Photo / AP
President-elect Donald Trump. Photo / AP

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK would not be able to stay in the single market after leaving the EU. Add to that Trump's targeting of Merkel as she faces re-election, Beijing's concern at the sudden shakiness of US recognition for the one-China policy and Trump's general warming towards Russia. A lot of uncertainty that wasn't there before has been injected into the Western world.

Trump's team has been sending mixed signals compared to the boss during the transition with the proposed secretary of defence, General James Mattis, calling Nato "the most successful military alliance, probably in modern history, maybe ever".

A great unknown at this stage is how much of policy will be shaped by Trump himself or by his Cabinet. And within the team, who will have the most influence?

Added to this are the surreal changes in party politics in Washington, with a Republican wing these days in favour of Putin, Julian Assange and WikiLeaks while others stick to the party's old foreign policy orthodoxy and the Democrats newly antagonistic towards Russia.

Trump's approach to foreign policy is one half of the equation - other countries have to work out what it means and react to it. When Trump says something that's different to policy in place for eight years or longer, it isn't a simple expression of his viewpoint: Others are making moves to take advantage of a new reality.

Major swings are expected when power changes hands between the parties but Barack Obama to Donald Trump is extreme.

While most of the attention has been focused on larger powers and potential major conflicts, such as China and Taiwan, smaller standoffs are more likely. A Serbia/Kosovo flare up shows that there's not only potential new conflicts to watch out for but old ones reviving.

Kosovo police stopped a Serbian train painted in nationalist colours with the words "Kosovo is Serbia" crossing the border. Serbia does not recognise Kosovo's independence.

Boston Globe writer Scott Gilmore made the point: "To their credit, Serbians understand Trump/Putin are ushering in a new Moscow-centric world, while Americans are still deciphering tweets." Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg tweeted: "Trump's comments on the EU and Nato could pave the way for Russian adventurism in the Baltics. Which would not be good."

It is Trump's reframing of the US relationship with Russia that is bubbling concern. Nato is deploying troops to Poland to reassure alliance members. Lithuania is to build a fence along its border with Russia.

Yesterday a Nato General, Denis Mercier, reacted to Trump's comments with a soothing: "We see that there is a need for adaptation". Mercier said Nato has "some structures that are obsolete".

Trump has argued with people, companies and groups as diverse as Saturday Night Live, the Pope, CNN, Vanity Fair and US intelligence staff. But he has consistently been positive about Moscow and Putin.

Aside from the US intelligence report on Russia's alleged meddling in the election and the disputed dossier compiled by a former MI6 agent, there's a lot that is publicly known about Trump's views of and ties to Russia. Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum outlined them:

Trump's real estate group is heavily reliant on Russian investment; a former Trump campaign manager, Paul Manafort, worked for Ukraine's former Russian-backed President, Viktor Yanukovych; Team Trump at the Republican convention changed the party platform to soften the language on Ukraine and Trump repeated slogans and conspiracy theories during the election campaign lifted from Sputnik, a Russian propaganda website.

Trump is willing to "risk serious conflict with China, to destroy US relations with Mexico, to dismiss America's closest allies in Europe and to downgrade Nato ... But he has repeated many times his admiration for Russia and its president".

The world waits to see whether its fears of chaos are exaggerated.