Back in January, I pointed out the discomfiting fact that the world hated President Trump. Whether one looked at Pew polling data, Gallup polling data or Trump’s inability to negotiate new deals, the evidence was pretty clear:
The Trump administration has paid a high price for trying to articulate its America First foreign policy. In return, the United States has gained . . . nothing. In his first year, Trump can point to no new alliances, trade deals or favorable basing agreements. Trump obsesses (wrongly) about trade deficits, but they increased with both China and Mexico in 2017. The dollar is not surging in response to a growing U.S. economy. Trump’s biggest foreign policy accomplishment is the military campaign against the Islamic State, which is basically a continuation of Obama’s 2016 strategy.
. . . The United States is losing its global standing because the world hates Donald Trump. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something.
So, not a good first year for Trump. To be fair, however, presidents can resuscitate their reputations. Ronald Reagan was a spectacularly unpopular president in his first few years because of a hawkish posture toward the Soviet Union. In the end, as he negotiated with Mikhail Gorbachev, the rest of the world grew more admiring. Trump’s hard-line bargaining position on trade and Iran might have inspired an initial wave of anger, but they may have also inspired respect. And respect is very, very important to Donald Trump.
Indeed, as Eli Stokols reported in the Los Angeles Times on Trump’s 500th day in office, respect for America is apparently his greatest foreign policy accomplishment to date:
Asked on Monday, President Trump’s 500th day in office, what he considers his top foreign policy achievement, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders quickly replied: "The strengthening of relationships with a number of foreign leaders." The State Department said the same with a tweet: “After 500 days in office, U.S. leadership is back on the world stage as the result of @POTUS's policies.”
It’s no surprise that top administration officials have alighted on that claim. The president has been making it at every opportunity — during a rally last week in Nashville, at the U.S. Naval Academy commencement ceremony and in off-the-cuff remarks to White House reporters Friday, just to name the latest audiences.
“We are respected again, I can tell you that. We are respected again,” Trump told the naval cadets. “A lot of things have happened. We’re respected again.”
On Tuesday, President Trump confronted some data that falsified that hypothesis:
I’ll just outsource the explanation of what happened to my Washington Post colleague David Nakamura:
At the U.N. General Assembly on Tuesday, Trump got a comeuppance on the world’s biggest stage. Delivering a speech that aimed to establish U.S. “sovereignty” over the whims and needs of other nations, the president’s triumphant moment was marred in the first minute when he was met by laughter — at his expense.
The embarrassing exchange came when Trump boasted that his administration had accomplished more over two years than “almost any administration” in American history, eliciting audible guffaws in the cavernous chamber hall.
The president appeared startled. “Didn’t expect that reaction,” he said, “but that’s okay.”
Members of the audience chuckled again — perhaps this time in sympathy.
Trump continued his address, which lasted an additional 34 minutes, but the moment marked a pointed rejoinder from the international community to a president who has delighted in poking traditional U.S. allies and partners in the eye on trade, security alliances and general diplomatic bonhomie.
Afterward, Trump claimed that he intended to inspire the laughter, but that dog won’t hunt. As Politico’s Matthew Choi noted, “It’s unusual for a U.S. president to draw unintentional laughs at a gathering of world leaders, and Trump has long complained that foreign governments are laughing at the U.S. for what he views as weak policies on trade and other issues.” The New York Times' Mark Landler tweeted, “The laughter at Trump’s UN speech underscores a hard reality for him: After 20 months of bombast, he’s now viewed by many foreign officials as a source of humor rather than fear.”
The spontaneous laughter clearly rattled Trump. What should really rattle him, however, is that in the 24 hours surrounding his U.N. General Assembly speech, the rest of the world was finding ways to move while Donald Trump was standing still.
Consider that the other signatories to the Iran nuclear deal agreed to create a structure to work around reimposed U.S. financial sanctions. According to the Financial Times' Mehreen Khan and Henry Foy:
The EU’s three biggest member states have agreed a deal with Russia and China to set up a special payments system to facilitate trade with Iran as global powers step up measures to protect a nuclear deal with Tehran after the US reimposed sanctions.
In a joint statement on Tuesday, the foreign ministers of China, Russia, Germany, the UK and France agreed to “assist and reassure economic operators pursuing legitimate business with Iran” including its oil exports....
Federica Mogherini, the EU’s top diplomat, said the financial tool — known as a “special purpose vehicle” — would allow for legitimate financial transfers between European and Iranian companies.
She added technical teams from EU governments would work on how the tool would work in the coming weeks.
In and of itself, this seems like just an effort to keep the Iran deal on life support despite the U.S. withdrawal. Over the long run, however, this is about the European Union, Russia and China devising a payments and settlement system that bypasses the United States. The more adept that these countries become at circumventing U.S. capital markets, the more it erodes the power of U.S. financial statecraft.
China is not only trying to blunt U.S. financial power, however. In the wake of U.S. withdrawal from activities at the United Nations, China is filling the vacuum, as the Guardian’s Patrick Wintour notes:
China, for years prepared to take a back seat at the UN, is now seeking positions of power, increasing its budget contributions and starting to assert its world view, notably the preeminence of national sovereignty over human rights.
According to Richard Gowan, of the European Council for Foreign Relations, the story of the last year at the UN has been one of the rise of China. “It has been happening for decades but it has been massively accelerating,” he said.
In part China is filling a space created by the withdrawal of the US from bodies such as the Geneva-based UN Human Rights Council and the UN’s cultural arm, Unesco.
“What you hear is that in committees dealing with trade and human rights, the Americans are hanging back. They are not being assertive, Gowan said. “By contrast the Chinese are dominating a lot of the conversations.”
Whatever objections the Trump administration might have with UNESCO and other U.N. agencies, its strategy of withdrawal has accomplished little other than ceding influence over these organizations to China.
Meanwhile, U.S. allies continue to resist the Trump administration’s pressure to make trade concessions. Canada has refused to acquiesce to a U.S. deadline to complete the NAFTA renegotiation, leaving the Trump administration in a bind with Congress. And French President Emmanuel Macron brought up trade in his General Assembly speech, which followed Trump. It would be safe to say that based on Nicole Gaouette’s reporting for CNN, Macron’s speech was not exactly friendly to an “America First” doctrine:
French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a fiery rebuke of US policies under President Donald Trump at the UN General Assembly Tuesday, signaling that he is ready to take up the mantle of global leadership usually assumed by a US leader.
At times directly referring to the US, Macron rapped the Trump administration for its policies on Iran, climate change, the UN, migration and Mideast peace, among others.
Macron praised the countries in the deal for keeping the Paris [climate change] agreement intact “because we have decided to stay unified despite the US decision to withdraw. This is power and this is the way to overcome challenges.” And he issued a suggestion to leverage that unity.
“Let’s stop signing trade agreements with those who don’t comply with the Paris agreement,” Macron said.
So, to sum up: The world laughed at President Trump’s bogus claims of foreign policy accomplishments. U.S. allies are working closely with Russia and China to find a way to evade U.S. financial sanctions on Iran and in the process are laying the groundwork for weakening the role of the U.S. dollar in the world. China is asserting greater control over the United Nations. And France refuses to negotiate any trade deal with the United States.
As president, Donald Trump was mocked Tuesday. The world neither respects nor fears the president of the United States, and it sure as heck doesn’t like him. None of this advances the national interest whatsoever.
Why, yes, I am sick and tired of all of the winning.