- By Mark P. LagonMark P. Lagon is Centennial Fellow at the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University, was U.S. ambassador-at-large to combat human trafficking, and is the author of "The Reagan Doctrine: American Conduct in the Cold War’s Last Chapter.", Brian P. McKeonBrian P. McKeon was a senior national security official in the White House and the Pentagon under President Obama.
Donald Trump was a master at branding in his business career, but he seems to have left those skills in New York. In just a month in Washington, the president has significantly damaged the American brand abroad, in ways that could harm U.S. interests for years.
America is not perfect in the eyes of the world. But it is different — and it is seen to be different. Since President Woodrow Wilson framed our entry into World War I as necessary to make the world safe for democracy, American leadership in advancing democratic ideals and global prosperity has been second to none. Presidents of both parties — from FDR’s “Four Freedoms” to Ronald Reagan’s appeal to “tear down this wall” to Barack Obama’s speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize — have supported democratic aspirations, the protection of human rights and human dignity, and a shared prosperity among nations. In the last seven decades, America has built an unrivaled network of alliances and web of international institutions that have enabled this agenda. In the grand sweep of history, the United States has arguably been the most unselfish of nation-states in advancing global interests as well as its own.
President Trump’s “America First” doctrine is a radical departure from this norm. No American questions the need to prioritize U.S. interests; but past presidents have understood that engaging the world need not be a zero-sum game, and that increasing global security and prosperity benefits America, too. Progress has not been perfect or linear, but since 1945 our record surely warrants far more than a passing grade: we’ve avoided a third world war, rebuilt the economies of former adversaries, and helped lead significant advances in human freedom and prosperity. But continued progress is not assured. Indeed, Freedom House’s most recent annual report concluded that 2016 was the “11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
At home, Trump and his team have regularly lambasted American institutions, to the detriment of our brand as a sturdy democracy. In rapid-fire succession, the president has: accused federal judges of endangering national security; alleged that a Senate committee chair emboldened the enemy by criticizing a military action; and asserted that certain media outlets are the “enemy of the people.” (This is not to mention the manifold misstatements of fact emanating from the White House.) These are actions many autocrats around the globe will recognize, and admire.
Finally, Trump has departed from longstanding bipartisan consensus by engaging in moral equivalence between the United States and Russia. And he continues to suggest that — his defense secretary’s advice to the contrary — torture and waterboarding are legitimate tools. (Enhanced interrogation was an intolerable error in the Bush administration, but President George W. Bush always said we do not and must not torture.) Both these postures suggest the United States under Trump no longer sees itself as standing — however imperfectly — for values of dignity, decency, and democracy.
It’s not just many Americans who are rightly troubled by these developments. Our allies and partners overseas must surely wonder about the state of our democracy and our commitment to universal values. We need not wonder, however, about the reaction of the club of dictators, who now have a powerful shield against Washington’s criticism. The next time a U.S. ambassador condemns a government leader for threatening judicial independence or press freedom, that leader will simply assert they are little different from President Trump. For years, America has influenced the world not just through the example of its power but also the power of its example. These are not examples we want the world to emulate.
The president has time for a course correction, but he missed an opportunity to clarify his vision in his speech to Congress on Tuesday. Aside from his welcome endorsement of NATO, we are left to wonder what the future holds. He promised meaningful engagement with the world — but focused narrowly on “vital security interests” and transactional relationships. He gave a brief nod to universal values by stating the obvious fact that “free nations” are the “best vehicle for expressing the will of the people” — but gave no indication that America would give voice to that will. And, non-controversially, he endorsed peace, harmony, and stability in the world — but has proposed to weaken the tools of diplomacy and development that advance these goals.
We have low expectations that the president will change course; attacks on our norms and institutions were regular fare for candidate Trump (who, among other things, threatened to prosecute his political opponent). It will likely fall to others — members of Congress, leaders of U.S. business and civil society, and the hundreds of thousands of U.S. citizens who regularly travel overseas — to protect the American brand that President Trump has so carelessly tarnished. America’s identity and influence depend on it.
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