Off to the Races

Trump Erodes U.S. Tradition of Global Leadership

The president has pulled America back from the role it has played for decades.

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Charlie Cook
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Charlie Cook
July 3, 2017, 8 p.m.

When Pres­id­ent Trump heads to Po­land and the G-20 sum­mit in Ger­many this week, he will be go­ing in a dif­fer­ent ca­pa­city than any pres­id­ent in our life­times.

Dur­ing the first half of the 20th cen­tury, the U.S. be­came the lead­er of the West­ern, demo­crat­ic world. In the second half of that cen­tury, there was no real rival as lead­er of the free world. With glob­al lead­er­ship came prestige and clout, but also re­spons­ib­il­it­ies and bur­dens. With little com­plaint, gen­er­a­tions of Amer­ic­ans shouldered those re­spons­ib­il­it­ies, some in uni­form (though at a cost of both lives and treas­ure, tax­pay­er funds that surely could have been spent at home).

In less than a year, that tra­di­tion of glob­al lead­er­ship has vir­tu­ally evap­or­ated.

Cov­er­ing a speech by Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel shortly after a NATO sum­mit in Brus­sels and a G-7 meet­ing in Italy, the head­line in the May 29 New York Times was “Wary of Trump, Merkel Doubts U.S. Is Sol­id Ally.” Merkel said, “The times in which we could rely fully on oth­ers—they are some­what over,” adding that European coun­tries should “really take our fate in­to our own hands.”

Soon after, Ca­na­dian For­eign Af­fairs Min­is­ter Chrys­tia Free­land told the Ca­na­dian Par­lia­ment that she “has come to ques­tion the very worth of its mantle of glob­al lead­er­ship,” Canada, like oth­er coun­tries, must “set our own clear and sov­er­eign course.” Free­land is a former U.S. ed­it­or of the Fin­an­cial Times. Paul Hein­beck­er, former Ca­na­dian am­bas­sad­or to the United Na­tions and ad­visor to a num­ber of Ca­na­dian gov­ern­ments, com­men­ted, “I saw it as be­ing based on the re­cog­ni­tion that Wash­ing­ton can’t or won’t lead.”

As Richard Haass, pres­id­ent of the Coun­cil on For­eign Re­la­tions, wrote last month, “It is in­creas­ingly clear that U.S. Pres­id­ent Don­ald Trump rep­res­ents a de­par­ture when it comes to Amer­ica’s glob­al out­look and be­ha­vi­or. As a res­ult, the United States will no longer play the lead­ing in­ter­na­tion­al role that has defined its for­eign policy for three-quar­ters of a cen­tury, un­der Demo­crat­ic and Re­pub­lic­an pres­id­ents alike.”

Haass, au­thor of the new book, A World in Dis­ar­ray: Amer­ic­an For­eign Policy and the Crisis of the Old World, ad­ded that “a shift away from a U.S.-dom­in­ated world of struc­tured re­la­tion­ships and stand­ing in­sti­tu­tions and to­ward something else is un­der way. What this al­tern­at­ive will be, however, re­mains largely un­know­able. What we do know is that there is no al­tern­at­ive great power will­ing and able to step in and as­sume what had been the U.S. role.”

However, “the ab­sence of a single suc­cessor to the U.S. does not mean that what awaits is chaos. At least in prin­ciple, the world’s most power­ful coun­tries could come to­geth­er to fill Amer­ica’s shoes. In prac­tice, though, this will not hap­pen, as these coun­tries lack the cap­ab­il­it­ies, ex­per­i­ence, and, above all, a con­sensus on what needs do­ing and who needs to do it.”

It isn’t just world lead­ers and for­eign policy elites who see this change; a re­cent Pew Re­search Cen­ter sur­vey of cit­izens in 37 coun­tries around the world with at least 800 in­ter­views in each found that in “the clos­ing years of the Obama pres­id­ency, a me­di­an of 64 per­cent had a pos­it­ive view of the U.S. Today, just 49 per­cent are fa­vor­ably in­clined to­ward Amer­ica,” not­ing that “some of the steep­est de­clines in U.S. im­age are found among long-stand­ing al­lies.” The study found that “the drop in fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings for the United States is wide­spread. The share of the pub­lic with a pos­it­ive view of the U.S. has plummeted in a di­verse set of coun­tries from Lat­in Amer­ica, North Amer­ica, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Fa­vor­ab­il­ity rat­ings have only in­creased in Rus­sia and Vi­et­nam.”

The poll found that “a me­di­an of just 22 per­cent has con­fid­ence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to in­ter­na­tion­al af­fairs. This stands in con­trast to the fi­nal years of Barack Obama’s pres­id­ency, when a me­di­an of 64 per­cent ex­pressed con­fid­ence in Trump’s pre­de­cessor to dir­ect Amer­ica’s role in the world.” The Pew study showed that the “sharp de­cline in how much glob­al pub­lics trust the U.S. pres­id­ent on the world stage is es­pe­cially pro­nounced among some of Amer­ica’s closest al­lies in Europe and Asia, as well as neigh­bor­ing Mex­ico and Canada. Across the 37 na­tions polled, Trump gets high­er marks than Obama in only two coun­tries: Rus­sia and Is­rael.”

In a May study con­duc­ted for the Asi­an Re­search Net­work, a con­sor­ti­um of pub­lic-policy in­sti­tutes in Aus­tralia, China, In­done­sia, In­dia, Korea, and Ja­pan, and su­per­vised by pro­fess­ors Si­mon Jack­man of the United States Study Centre at the Uni­versity of Sydney and Gor­don Flake of the Perth USAsia Cen­ter at the Uni­versity of West­ern Aus­tralia, showed that “as­sess­ments of Amer­ic­an in­flu­ence and value in the re­gion have di­min­ished—par­tic­u­larly in Aus­tralia, Ja­pan, and Korea, but not in China.” The sur­vey, which in­ter­viewed at least 750 cit­izens in each of those six Pa­cific Rim coun­tries, found that in Aus­tralia, for ex­ample, “re­spond­ents in­creas­ingly see China as hav­ing the most in­flu­ence in the Indo-Pa­cific re­gion (72 per­cent).” Only 11 per­cent chose the United States. Ad­di­tion­ally, “more than half of Aus­trali­ans (62 per­cent) per­ceive Amer­ic­an in­flu­ence in the next five years as neg­at­ive un­der U.S. Pres­id­ent Don­ald Trump.”

There is no doubt that elec­tions have con­sequences. Last Novem­ber, Amer­ic­ans voted for Trump and his slo­gan, “Make Amer­ica Great Again.” But what ex­actly were the voters say­ing? It is clear that many Amer­ic­ans felt ig­nored or dis­respec­ted, that the elites on the East and West Coasts, in gov­ern­ment, the me­dia, and in both cor­por­ate Amer­ica and in or­gan­ized labor, had ig­nored their in­terests and watched idly while their real in­comes waned as oth­ers flour­ished. The rich and power­ful were do­ing well, but these voters felt that they were work­ing harder and harder and mak­ing little, if any, pro­gress. There was also a sense that some were cut­ting or get­ting pro­moted to the front of the line, along with re­sent­ment about minor­it­ies and im­mig­rants that had been build­ing for some time.

While cer­tainly many of these Trump voters want us to fo­cus more on prob­lems at home, did they con­sciously choose for the United States to ab­dic­ate its po­s­i­tion as glob­al lead­er, as the Lead­er of the Free World? Did they in­tend a fun­da­ment­al change in the dir­ec­tion of U.S. lead­er­ship? For a lot of for­eign policy pros, if you asked them who is the most re­spec­ted lead­er of all demo­crat­ic coun­tries, they would more likely say An­gela Merkel than Don­ald Trump.

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