America’s standing in the world is at a low ebb. Once described as the indispensable nation, the United States is now seen as withdrawn and inward-looking, a reluctant and unreliable partner at a dangerous moment for the world. The coronavirus pandemic has only made things worse.
President Trump shattered a 70-year consensus among U.S. presidents of both political parties that was grounded in the principle of robust American leadership in the world through alliances and multilateral institutions. For decades, this approach was seen at home and abroad as good for the world and good for the United States.
In its place, Trump has substituted his America First doctrine and what his critics say is a zero-sum-game sensibility about international relationships. America First has been described variously as nationalistic, populistic, isolationist and unilateralist. The president has demeaned allies and emboldened adversaries such as China and Russia.
At home, Trump’s handling of the pandemic has created division and confusion rather than an effective national strategy. The rest of the world sees the United States not as a leader in dealing with the coronavirus but as the country with the highest number of coronavirus infections and covid-19 deaths, and with the disease far from under control. European nations have responded with the unprecedented step of blocking Americans from entering their countries.
From abroad, the United States is seen as having lost confidence in itself as it grapples not only with the pandemic but also with long-standing political divisions and a racial reckoning over the treatment of black Americans. The perceived loss of confidence among Americans in turn has led others to question the United States’ appetite or capacity for a collaborative leadership role at a time when the health and economic crises call out for committed global cooperation.
Before the pandemic, the president took a number of steps that signaled a retreat from collective involvement abroad, pulling out of the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. He raised doubts about the U.S. commitment to NATO. After a long-running quarrel with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, he has called for the withdrawal of more than a quarter of the 34,500 U.S. troops stationed in Germany.
Since the pandemic struck, Trump has continued to pull back. When other nations’ leaders gathered by video to rally behind and provide funding for the development of a coronavirus vaccine, the United States skipped the meeting. When many world leaders participated in a World Health Organization assembly on the pandemic, the president was absent. Trump’s anger with China over the virus ultimately prompted him to withdraw the United States from the WHO.
“People are stunned about the effect of incapable leadership, or of polarizing leadership, of not being able to unify and get the forces aligned so you can address the problem [of the coronavirus],” said Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff, a vice president of the German Marshall Fund and director of its Berlin office. “And that, of course, results in a nosedive in how you view [the United States]. What you’re seeing is a collapse of soft power of America.”
“I think the U.S. is seen from my perspective as being involved in its own internal reckoning — like the rest of the world doesn’t really exist,” said Robin Niblett, director and chief executive of Chatham House, a think tank in London. “It’s America trying to battle with historical and contemporary demons that as much as anything are a result of its own internal contradictions and tensions and strengths and weaknesses. And it’s not all bad. I’m just saying it is like really seeing somebody’s psychological flaws exposed at a moment of stress.”
Trump gets credit, even if sometimes grudgingly, for asking uncomfortable questions and challenging old assumptions. He has forced other nations to take a tougher approach to China and to reappraise the costs of globalization. His badgering of NATO allies to spend more on defense, however irritating to the allies, produced results that had eluded previous presidents.
“If you look at the world, it is an alliance of liberty coming around to face the existential threat of our time, which is the totalitarian dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party,” said Stephen K. Bannon, who served as chief strategist in the White House early in the Trump administration and has long been a proponent of a nationalistic foreign policy. “The axis and the allies here are very well defined.”
But despite acknowledgments that Trump has at times raised legitimate questions, overall assessments of the effect of his approach to the world are harsh — with fears that the pandemic will do further damage over time.
“It hurts our brand. It hurts the status of our institutions. It’s going to weaken our economy and our economic power and soft power as a consequence,” said Stephen J. Hadley, who was a national security adviser to President George W. Bush. “It’s potentially a real setback.”
By the numbers, a loss of confidence in U.S. leadership
This is not the first time the world has held America in low esteem. The U.S. invasion of Iraq cost the country dearly, in lives and in prestige. George W. Bush left office highly unpopular, especially in Europe. Earlier, America’s image was tarnished by the red-baiting of then-Sen. Joseph McCarthy (R-Wis.) in the 1950s, the bloody civil rights clashes of the 1960s, the Watergate scandal that led to Nixon’s resignation in the 1970s and the Iran hostage crisis later that decade.
Still, by the numbers, Trump had an immediate and negative impact. A Gallup survey of impressions of world leadership after the first year of Trump’s presidency saw the rating of U.S. leadership plummet by 20 points — lower than Bush’s worst rating.
The following year, approval of U.S. leadership remained similarly low, and disapproval was higher than for the leadership in Germany, China and Russia. “In this climate, China’s leadership has gained a larger advantage in the ‘great power competition,’ and the other player, Russia, is now on a more even level with the U.S.,” the Gallup report said.
The Pew Research Center issued a report in January on international attitudes toward the United States and found 64 percent of people across 32 countries saying they had no confidence in Trump as the U.S. leader, though impressions of the U.S. as a whole remained positive. Trump’s ratings were slightly better than the previous year. Pew analysts said that was because of increased support from those on the right in other nations, including those who support right-wing populist parties in their countries.
The same phenomenon showed up in an annual Gallup survey of satisfaction among Americans with the U.S. position in the world. The 2020 survey found that category of satisfaction at 53 percent, up from 32 percent in early 2017. The difference was attributable in large part to a big shift among Republicans. Coming out of the Obama years in 2017, 47 percent of Republicans said they were satisfied with the U.S. position in the world. After three years under Trump, that had risen to 85 percent.
A report issued last month by the Bertelsmann Foundation, the German Marshall Fund of the United States and Institut Montaigne found that, in Germany, France and the United States, America was seen as the world’s most influential country both before and during the pandemic, but the report noted that “China’s influence has risen significantly.”
A recent poll asked Germans how their perceptions of other countries have changed as a result of the pandemic. More than 7 in 10 said their impressions of the United States have deteriorated. Only 5 percent said their impressions had improved. China, which Trump has criticized sharply for its handling of the pandemic, did not come off well, either, but in comparison, far less badly than the United States.
When Pew asked Americans in May to rate the performance of various countries with respect to the coronavirus, the United States was rated lower than three other countries—South Korea, Germany and Britain.
The discontinuity of Trump’s foreign policy
On Sept. 2, 1987, Trump, at the time a New York real estate developer toying with a run for president, bought a full-page ad in three major newspapers to publish an open letter to the American people outlining his views on foreign and defense policy. It was a view of the world and America’s place in it that he would carry largely unchanged into the White House almost 30 years later.
He did not use the words “America First” but that was the essence of his message. For decades, he argued, “other nations have been taking advantage of the United States.” He said the world “is laughing at America’s politicians” for doing work beneficial to others at the expense of those at home. He said the United States was absorbing the costs of protecting other nations that could and should pay more.
At the time, Japan and Saudi Arabia were among his principal targets. In office, it has become China and the nations of NATO, which together make up the United States’ most important military alliance. But if the targets are different, the philosophy has changed little. America has been played for a sucker, and it’s time to call a halt.
The elements of his America First worldview include a focus on trade, with tariffs as a weapon; a more restrictive immigration policy; pressing others to pay more of the cost of mutual defense; and a reliance on bilateral rather than multilateral negotiations. His style is transactional and highly personal, and while he has been critical of the leaders of democratic countries such as Germany and France, and Britain earlier, he has been reluctant to criticize authoritarian leaders including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Xi Jinping (the latter at least until recently).
In a speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September 2019, Trump said: “If you want freedom, take pride in your country. If you want democracy, hold on to your sovereignty. And if you want peace, love your nation. Wise leaders always put the good of their own people and their own country first. The future does not belong to globalists. The future belongs to patriots. The future belongs to sovereign and independent nations.”
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, in a speech to the Heritage Foundation’s President’s Club last October, said the administration was approaching the world realistically. “We’ve recognized that we can’t be all things to everywhere, all the time,” he said. “No nation has the capacity to deliver that. And that means not that you abandon the field but that you calibrate your resources to effectively address the relative risks. . . . I am confident that the next administrations will come into office and they’ll see these issues the same way because they’re right.”
On their face, those words are not particularly discordant. But analysts who have served presidents of both parties come to a different conclusion. They say Trump’s presidency has marked the greatest discontinuity in American foreign policy since World War II.
“President Trump is acting as no administration acted since the 1920s,” said Nicholas Burns, a career Foreign Service officer and former U.S. ambassador to NATO now teaching at Harvard’s Kennedy School. “Those presidents were engaged in the world. President Trump isn’t. He’s almost at war with the world.”
Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and U.S. ambassador to NATO during the administration of President Barack Obama, said of Trump, “He doesn’t believe in alliances, open markets, promotion of freedom and human rights — the three pillars of [American] foreign policy. On the essential concept of the United States as the global leader of the international order, Donald Trump has thrown that all out the window.”
“What Donald Trump is doing is badly damaging the belief by people outside the United States that we still understand that that system [of alliances] is in our best interests, as well as the interest of other countries,” said Kori Schake, director of foreign and defense policy at the American Enterprise Institute, who served in the administration of George W. Bush. “We act like treaties and participation in international organizations is some kind of big favor we are doing everyone else.”
Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Trump’s benign treatment of authoritarian leaders such as Putin, Xi and North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has produced no obvious positive results or benefits for the United States. “He would argue this is part of his grand strategy to get them to be better neighbors,” Romney said. “The disproof of that is the lack of pudding.”
Romney pointed to Trump’s decision to withdraw from the WHO to argue that going it alone is the wrong strategy. “It’s a very symbolic decision to say the WHO is too influenced by China and we’re going to get out of it so it can be completely dominated by China, instead of saying we’re going to flex our muscle and make sure the WHO gets in line,” he said.
Across the political spectrum of national security analysts, including some who give the president credit in specific areas of foreign policy, there is agreement that the pandemic underscores the damage caused by the president.
Tom Donilon, who was a national security adviser to Obama, said: “By almost every measure, America’s standing and influence in the world has been damaged over the last three-and-a-half years. . . . You see it during a crisis. This is the first global crisis probably since World War II where the United States has not been in the lead. It’s kind of a stunning thing to see a transnational challenge like this without U.S. leadership.”
Trump disrupts, but is there an effective strategy?
In the years after the end of the Cold War, the United States was the world’s lone superpower. But it never was quite the indispensable nation as those words began to be used in the late 1990s.
Defenders say the description was employed by officials in President Bill Clinton’s administration in part to encourage Americans to resist isolationist impulses and to remain involved in the world after the breakup of the Soviet Union.
As the world changed, the role of the United States changed, too. Other nations rose to power. China’s economic prowess gave it standing it had lacked, and then Xi turned his country in a sharply anti-democratic direction. Russia under Putin became a global nemesis. India’s power expanded. The United States became bogged down in two wars in the Middle East that cost thousands of lives, stretched its military thin and sapped the appetite among the public for foreign adventures.
Anecdotally, a shift in perceptions about America’s desire for global leadership began before Trump was elected. One moment that many abroad cite is when Obama failed to follow through on his threat to retaliate militarily after Syria crossed his “red line” by using chemical weapons against its own people. Obama’s decision sent a damaging signal to allies.
Before Trump, opposition to globalism was growing. The most conspicuous example of how the politics were changing came when Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state had advocated for the negotiation of a Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, refused to endorse the agreement as a candidate for the Democratic nomination in 2016.
Others cited the financial crisis in 2008 and 2009 as another moment when others, particularly China, fed perceptions of U.S. decline. Efforts to extract the country’s military from Iraq and Afghanistan added to the idea of the United States pulling back.
Both Obama and Trump campaigned against endless wars in the Middle East, and analysts argue that both presidents thought the United States needed to right-size itself globally — though the two leaders approached that mission in radically different ways. Obama still sought engagement in the world through allied institutions. Trump has preferred that America go it alone.
“I think this has been coming,” Chatham House’s Niblett said. “Trump is a rude awakening, maybe a necessarily rude awakening, to a shift that’s been happening for at least the last 15 or 20 years, since the end of the Cold War.”
If Trump’s style draws near-universal criticism, not every policy of his does, whether it is helping to arm Ukraine and moving an armored brigade into Poland as a counter to Russian aggression, or pushing back on China’s moves in the South China Sea. In this interpretation, Trump’s policies recall an old line about the composer Richard Wagner, of whom it was said that his music was better than it sounded.
Bannon said that Trump has been far ahead of the American foreign policy elites on China and has “boxed in the globalists” and the campaign of former vice president Joe Biden with his hawkish approach. He pointed to statements by senior administration officials this summer that have laid out the case against the Chinese in aggressive terms.
Bannon called it “nonsense” to suggest that Trump is not leading the world on what he described as the major issue of the day. He argued that the president has spoken with the same kind of force and clarity on China that marked President Ronald Reagan’s posture and rhetoric toward the Soviet Union in the 1980s. “The world is coming together [on China],” he said. “Those are the facts.”
Others see Trump as a problem identifier without policies to solve the problems he identifies. They see his China policy as one-dimensional, focused principally on trade, and ask what is the relationship with China that he is seeking and how would he try to make it happen. “The Trump administration can’t say what’s the point we’re aiming for,” said Schake, the AEI policy director. “What’s the China we want? That makes it harder to get everybody organized.”
Romney argued that Trump would have been “far better served to have collaborated with our allies around the world and have confronted China not just as the United States but as an entire world community.”
Kiron Skinner served as the State Department’s director of policy planning from 2018 to 2019 and now is a professor at Carnegie Mellon University. She described Trump’s foreign policy strategy as based on four pillars:
First, that nation states, rather than international institutions, are the principal players and that nation states “should put their nation state first.” Second, that there should be greater reciprocity in international agreements. Third, that there should be increased burden-sharing by America’s allies. Fourth, that America should extricate itself from endless wars.
Skinner said the president operates on instincts and hunches that add up to a theory of the world. “It’s counterintuitive because he’s not a foreign policy expert. But he’s really trying to do grand strategy,” she said.
She argued that Trump is recognizing a new reality internationally faster than some of the foreign policy elites. “They’re not theorizing fast enough,” she added. “They’re reacting to what is being said by one person, namely Donald Trump, instead of saying, ‘Is there something here?’ I think there’s a way that they’re discounting that there could be an argument underneath the rhetoric.”
Daalder countered by saying that even if some of Trump’s instincts were correct, he has not shown he has a strategy to get things done. “Constructive disruption might well have been useful,” he said. “It clearly is the case that the system has been stultified, that some of the verities that the foreign policy elite in Washington have taken as acts of faith need to be questioned. But disruption for its own sake becomes destruction. The absence of a strategy and a clear goal of getting from point A to point B undermines the values of disruption and left us all worse off.”
Schake said the administration treats diplomacy as something performative, arguing that the administration “appears to be operating under the belief that strident reiteration of our maximal demands counts as diplomacy. . . . They keep saying over and over what we expect of North Korea, what we expect of Iran, what we expect of the Europeans, and it doesn’t appear to move anybody, and so it’s a failing diplomatic strategy.”
A challenging future, no matter the outcome in November
What the next four years hold obviously depends considerably on the outcome of the November election, but few who study or practice in the areas of foreign policy and national security see an easy path ahead, whatever the result.
“Over the long term, I still have confidence in our institutions, our entrepreneurial traditions, our universities, our values, our young people and all the rest,” said Hadley, the former national security adviser. “But our margin for error is small. The challenges are great and we’re not doing what we need to do to avoid the doomsday scenario.”
“I think this is the most dangerous moment the United States has faced in decades,” said the former Obama adviser Donilon. “We obviously are in the midst of multiple crises. Economic. Health. A serious societal upheaval. We have an election system that is vulnerable to outside interference. . . . We have the lowest point in our relationships with Russia and China in decades. I think democracy is under the most pressure in the world since the ’30s.”
Burns, a foreign policy adviser to the Biden campaign, said he thinks the former vice president, as president, would “quickly return the United States to a position of leadership” and that other governments would respond positively to that. “But I worry that it will take longer with the publics of these countries,” he added. “The memory of Donald Trump will not fade easily.”
But for those for whom electing Biden solves everything, Daalder offered a cautionary note. “It’s not enough to just change tone,” he said. “People will say it’s great that Joe Biden loves us, but what are we going to do? It will take an extraordinary effort to reengage and rebuild a set of relationships and a set of tools that have been ignored for far too long.”
Few believe a new president can flip a switch and return the situation to that of a previous era. “There is no status quo ante,” said the German Marshall Fund’s Kleine-Brockhoff.
Nor will the choices be easy for allies of the United States, particularly in Europe, even if Biden becomes the next president. “Europeans can dismiss a lot of what the Trump administration tells Europe because it’s Trump telling us,” Niblett said, “because we don’t trust him personally, because as Europeans, we think he’s making it up as he goes along. But if Biden were to come, there’d be no hiding. Europeans would have to make choices” — starting with their relationship with China.
Whoever is the next president will face what some analysts see as the most daunting national security inheritance of any president in living memory — and the mere change of administrations might not be enough to reassure other nations, which now fear that a significant portion of the U.S. population embraces Trump’s approach to the world and will continue to do so, even if he is no longer president.
“Now that they’ve seen Trump, they fear a whipsawing back and forth between something they recognize in the historical tradition and something that’s a throwback to neo-isolationism,” said Michèle Flournoy, who served as undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration. “Until they see a second election that validates an engaged United States that is willing to lead in concert with allies and partners, they won’t be assured.”
The prestige of the United States ebbs and flows with events, but the country remains the one to which others still look in times of crisis. Expectations of this country are always higher than for other powers that do not have its long track record of leadership. But the last time this country’s standing was in decline, it was because of fears that the United States would exercise its vast powers excessively and unilaterally. That is not the issue today. Instead, it is a worry that the United States is no longer prepared or willing to use the powers it still has for the good of the world.