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After Trump pledges ‘America First,’ the world responds with protests and dismay

Pinatas in the likeness of U.S. President Donald Trump hang on a length of wire during a protest in Mexico City, Friday, Jan. 20, 2017. (Marco Ugarte / Associated Press)
By Griff Witte Washington Post

LONDON – If the credo of the new U.S. president is “America First,” as Donald Trump emphatically declared Friday in his strikingly nationalistic inaugural address, then where does that leave the rest of the world?

That’s what people around the globe – from Asia to the Middle East to Latin America – were left to wonder after watching Trump use the opening minutes of his presidency to double down on campaign pledges to end what he sees as misguided efforts to help other countries at the expense of U.S. interests.

After more than 70 years of vigorous political, diplomatic, economic and military engagement to promote pax-Americana, Trump’s words suggested to international observers a far more isolationist and protectionist path ahead.

“If he follows through – and people have to come to terms with the fact he may well do what he says he’s going to do – then it’s the end of the post-World War II, post-Cold War order, and the beginning of a new phase,” said Ian Kearns, co-founder of the London-based European Leadership Network.

But that phase, Kearns said, may be far rockier for the United States than Trump suggests.

“If you’re just out to defend your interests,” he said, “then others will do the same.”

Within minutes of Trump’s speech Friday, others were already having their say.

Although world leaders showered Trump with a cascade of politely worded tweets and congratulatory messages, the mood on the streets in many world cities was far more unsettled on the day that Trump became U.S. commander in chief.

In London, hundreds of people gathered in the evening chill to chant “Dump Trump!” outside the American embassy. In Mexico City, residents took to social networks to debate not whether Trump was good or bad, but how grave the new era might be. And in Beirut, observers compared Trump’s speech to those by their own region’s past and present despots.

There was also praise. Many Russians rejoiced, as did anti-European Union populists and Israeli officials.

The world’s divided response mirrored the one in the United States: defiance and despair in some quarters, enthusiasm and optimism in others and profound polarization as far as the eye can see.

But perhaps not surprisingly for a president who came to office on a wave of insults hurled across national borders, the world’s protests were more pronounced than its victory parties.

Mexicans awoke Friday to the realization of what many consider a political nightmare: the inauguration of an American president who has taken aim at their economy, their migrants, and their shared border.

Literary critic Christopher Dominguez Michael published an op-ed in El Universal simply called, “The saddest day.”

“We are immersed in a cultural war,” another columnist, Carlos Heredia Zubieta, wrote in the newspaper. “For the first time in decades, the affront unites Mexicans of all social classes.”

Trump’s address itself – more scripted than his campaign speeches, but no less bombastic – left many around the world in open-mouthed wonder.

“I listened to Trump’s inauguration speech dubbed on an Arabic channel – it could easily have been Saddam, Assad or Sissi,” tweeted Mohamad Bazzi, professor of journalism at New York University, who is in Beirut, referring to the late ruler of Iraq and the current presidents of Syria and Egypt.

Nathalie Kluver, a Twitter user from the northern German city of Lubeck, appeared to echo the thoughts of many Germans when she tweeted: “If a German chancellor said at an #inauguration that he wants to make Germany great again – that’s unimaginable.”

Demonstrations spanned the globe, and were generally small but spirited.

After dark in London – as Trump finished speaking – hundreds of placard-bearing protesters massed at the American embassy to vigorously chant their dismay.

“It’s cold, it’s dark, I’d rather be at home in the warm. But I’m here because I’m only an ordinary person, and I’m frightened,” said 65-year-old retiree Stephanie Clark, mentioning nuclear weapons and climate change as particular areas of concern. “I’m frightened of what Donald Trump and his administration can do.”

There was an edgier tone to protests in the Philippines capital of Manila, where protesters burned an American flag and called on President Rodrigo Duterte to distance himself from Trump.

Marches were also staged in the West Bank city of Nablus, where hundreds of residents paraded Palestinian flags and voiced concern with Trump’s seeming shift toward Israel, including his promise to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem.

“He’s not a man of peace,” said 53-year-old Moussa al-Bitouni, who watched as the inauguration was broadcast live in a smoky East Jerusalem cafe. “He doesn’t want to take the path of peace, or talk about peace.”

The mood was very different in Israeli settlements, where Trump’s ascendance to the America’s highest office was greeted with relief and hopeful expectation.

A delegation of settler leaders was in Washington to attend the inauguration as VIP guests, their presence representing a striking turnabout: For decades, U.S. presidents – both Democrat and Republican – have been highly critical of settlement building. Trump, by contrast, has appointed a vocal advocate and fundraiser for the settlements as his ambassador to Israel.

“Congrats to my friend President Trump. Look fwd to working closely with you to make the alliance between Israel&USA stronger than ever,” tweeted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In another sign of the changed geopolitical landscape, anti-European Union leaders were also welcomed at the inauguration. Nigel Farage, who helped lead the campaign for Britain’s E.U. exit, was in Washington as an honored guest and hosted a pre-inauguration party Thursday night. Trump has said he’s indifferent to the E.U.’s fate, unlike all his recent predecessors, who have been staunch backers of European integration.

“The old order wasn’t working,” Farage said on a broadcast for the British radio station LBC. “I think it’s going to be great. I think it’s going to be huge. I wish (Trump) well.”

French far-right politician Marine Le Pen – leading some polls in the French presidential race due in the spring – was similarly exuberant, declaring that Trump’s election had opened “a new era in the cooperation between nations.”

The response among Europe’s establishment was less sympathetic.

Former German defense minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg called on the German government to answer Trump’s “crude ideas” in a clear and, if necessary, tough manner.

“This might be the moment to let a ‘culture of responsibility’ grow out of the ‘culture of restraint’ (the government) so touchingly nursed in the past,” Guttenberg wrote in an editorial for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

There was also apprehension in China – though the government was being careful with its response.

China’s foreign ministry has generally maintained an outward appearance of calm in the run-up to Trump’s inauguration, mostly declining to rise to the bait after some of Trump’s most strident tweets. Behind the scenes, though, diplomats in Beijing say the government is very nervous about the prospect of a Trump administration.

The English-language China Daily newspaper said it hoped Trump could display “more statesmanship” after his inauguration, but warned that he was “playing with fire” in trying to open the one-China question.

“If Trump is determined to use this gambit on taking office, a period of fierce, damaging interactions will be unavoidable, as Beijing will have no choice but to take off the gloves,” it wrote in an editorial.

China’s censors recently ordered the nation’s media not to indulge in unauthorized criticism of Trump, according to China Digital Times, a website that tracks censorship directives.

In Moscow, Trump was toasted with champagne at an upscale party stocked with politicians, analysts, activists and journalists. The applause was warm when Trump took the oath.

“It’s going to be a lot of action, drive, excitement,” said Dmitry Nosov, a sturdily built former member of Russian parliament, who wore a grey-checked blazer with a bear pin. “Not dull like it has been.”