The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion ‘America first’ is becoming America alone

Members of the German Greens Party protest outside the U.S. Embassy in Berlin against President Trump the day before his announcement that he is pulling the United States out of the Paris agreement on June 2. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Brian Klaas is a fellow in comparative politics at the London School of Economics and author of “The Despot’s Accomplice: How the West is Aiding and Abetting the Decline of Democracy.”

Last year, Donald Trump made a highly specific pledge to his supporters: “The world is going to respect us again. Believe me.” It was just the sort of promise Trump has a habit of making. After all, as he sees it, he’s a tough, successful, straight-talking businessman — the kind of guy that other people instinctively fear and admire.

Except that, well, it hasn’t really turned out that way so far. On Monday, the Pew Research Center released its new survey of international opinion, and the results showed dramatically that the president hasn’t delivered. European partners, NATO allies and our top trade destinations now agree that the president of the United States can’t be trusted “to do the right thing regarding world affairs.”

This marks an unprecedented erosion of confidence in America’s global leadership. According to the poll, confidence in the White House since Barack Obama left office plummeted 75 percent in Germany, 71 percent in South Korea, 61 percent in Canada, 57 percent in the United Kingdom and 54 percent in Japan. Of 37 countries surveyed, 35 expressed less confidence in Trump than in Obama — most by a large margin. The two exceptions that favor Trump over Obama so far are Israel (+7 percent) and, perhaps unsurprisingly, Russia (+42 percent).

“America first” is quickly becoming America alone.

That’s obviously a disaster for U.S. trade and security. But it’s a bigger long-term disaster for the allure of global democracy.

Ronald Reagan invoked the image of the United States as a “shining city on a hill.” He rightly argued that the United States, flawed as it may be, was nevertheless a beacon for oppressed people around the world — an advertisement for the resilience and prosperity forged by democracy. That beacon occasionally flickered with America’s checkered foreign policy record. But now, it is being snuffed out.

To many across the world, Trump’s America looks more like a city upon a landfill than one perched atop a summit of laudable ideals. Some already thought that, of course, because you can’t be popular with everyone. Still, it appears that millions or billions more just joined their ranks.

That was confirmed in the Pew survey, which showed that more of those surveyed had confidence in Vladimir Putin “to do the right thing” (27 percent) than the president of the United States (22 percent). That’s horrifying enough when you consider that Putin is a murderous despot with a track record of having journalists assassinated, having dissidents jailed and facilitating war crimes in Syria. But the harsh fact remains: The world sadly trusts the moral instincts of an authoritarian thug more than those of the leader of the world’s most powerful democracy.

(That viewpoint, it should be said, is misguided and unfair. Trump may have authoritarian tendencies, but ranting at people on Twitter is still a long way from poisoning them. Anyone suggesting such false equivalency has lost sight of reality.)

Nonetheless, perception matters. Developing countries use global powers as blueprints to build their societies. Citizens pressure their governments to follow what works. At the end of the Cold War, most countries saw one viable blueprint: liberal democracy. Nearly two decades later, China’s version of authoritarian capitalism and Russia’s aggressive nationalism are countermodels. The more that the world looks down on the United States, the more alluring those alternatives become.

And yet, Trump has proven ruthlessly efficient at destroying the standing of the U.S. model. His personal behavior is not the only problem. Partisan tribalism, political polarization and endless gridlock are stains that will not be easily wiped away. The 2016 election and its aftermath was a flashing neon sign to the world, one stating that U.S. democracy is badly broken. Whoever is to blame, the bottom line is clear: Fewer and fewer countries want to emulate the United States.

That shift is happening at the worst possible time. Trump’s foreign policy not only is bad for America’s reputation, but it also actively undercuts the prospects of democracy around the world. He has articulated a vision of a selfish and shortsighted “America first” foreign policy, prompting smaller countries to seek out new sponsors. (Beijing and Moscow are waiting with open arms.) Simultaneously, Trump unapologetically acts as a cheerleader for despots — praising Putin, congratulating President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for dismantling Turkish democracy and endorsing President Rodrigo Duterte’s death squads in the Philippines. And they’ve received the message loud and clear. It’s a free pass from Washington that allows would-be strongmen to indulge their darkest impulses without fear of consequences.

Trump always promised he’d be a president who would get things done quickly. He’s making good on that promise in one awful way: Trump has destroyed America’s standing in the world after just five months on the job.