Then when he was inaugurated, the clouds dispersed and the country experienced a new dawn of prosperity and joy. This contrast extends beyond our borders: Supposedly, America was laughed at and looked down on, but with him now at the helm, we are finally respected and admired again.
Trump says this a lot: Around the world, America is finally respected again. But in fact, the picture he paints is pretty much the opposite of the truth. We need to ask, however, how much that actually matters.
Let’s look first at the latest data, courtesy of the Pew Research Center:
America’s global image plummeted following the election of President Donald Trump, amid widespread opposition to his administration’s policies and a widely shared lack of confidence in his leadership. Now, as the second anniversary of Trump’s election approaches, a new 25-nation Pew Research Center survey finds that Trump’s international image remains poor, while ratings for the United States are much lower than during Barack Obama’s presidency.
In the 25 countries that Pew surveyed, a median of 70 percent of respondents said they had no confidence in Trump, which gives them something in common with most Americans. But it’s not just him: In most of the countries surveyed, the image of the United States itself has suffered since Trump took office. For instance, at the end of the Obama presidency, 57 percent of Germans had a favorable opinion of the United States; now it’s 30 percent. The decline didn’t happen everywhere, and there were even two countries, Kenya and Russia, where Trump seems to have had a favorable impact on views of the United States. But overall, there was a dramatic dip in how people in other countries viewed us once we elected our current president.
To that, you might say, “So what?” And if Trump were being honest, I think that would probably be his response. Indeed, the whole point of his “America First” philosophy is that international relations, like all human interactions as far as he’s concerned, are zero-sum. Trump views international cooperation on things such as climate change and security as inherently suspect. He assumes that everyone is trying to get one over on us, and if you negotiate a treaty that seems to be to everyone’s mutual benefit, that just means you’re too naive to see how you’re being conned.
So he regularly questions our involvement in NATO, which has been a force for international stability for seven decades, because he somehow thinks we aren’t getting enough out of the deal. As far as Trump is concerned, if you aren’t screwing someone over, you’re the one getting screwed, whether it’s a negotiation over some gold-plated toilets for your apartment or maintaining peace in Europe. He views it like the old saying about the poker table: If you look around and you don’t know who the sucker is, that means you’re the sucker. And there are few things more important to Donald Trump than not being the sucker.
But what happens when everyone understands that that’s your guiding idea in approaching them? Trump is surely aware that when you make clear your desire to dominate and humiliate others, they may not be too happy about it. But he would also no doubt argue that that’s just too bad: We’re the biggest and the strongest, and so we should be able to dictate the terms of any relationship to our own benefit.
In some cases, that might work to achieve your short-term goals, if another country has no choice but to do what you want. Our international relations have always used a combination of carrots and sticks, to varying degrees of success. But every president in memory has at the very least acted as though gaining the world’s approval — not just claiming we have it but actually doing things to get it — might be beneficial for the United States.
When Trump goes before the United Nations and representatives of all the world’s nations laugh at him, it may be momentarily embarrassing, but it doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t still fear American military power or lap up the American movies, TV, music and video games that dominate global pop culture. But the fact that Trump is an object of distrust, ridicule, and contempt does open up an opportunity for another country — let’s say, for no particular reason, China — to move in to the vacuum of leadership Trump has created.
As Daniel Drezner argues, Trump understands one kind of power, the ability to force others to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do. But other kinds of power, like building institutions and practices that serve our goals, or convincing others to adopt our values, are utterly alien to him. It wouldn’t even be possible to identify any values Trump would have the world adopt if he could. He evinces no particular concern about democracy, or liberty, or strong civic institutions, or systems of international cooperation like the WTO and International Criminal Court, or any of the other things America has spent decades trying to promote.
My guess is that most of the world’s citizens and their leaders are only secondarily concerned with those things and the main reason their view of Trump is so poor — and it’s rubbing off on their view of the United States — is that he’s a lying, racist, xenophobic, buffoonish demagogue. One could imagine a president who shared his “America First” beliefs without being so personally repellent; that president might not harm the country’s image as much. But this is the president we have, and the result may be a kind of lost period in international relations, in which we miss opportunities to reinforce our status and our values while China’s influence grows.