Will America’s Good Name Survive the 2016 Election?

The campaign shenanigans might end on Nov. 8, but the damage done to America’s reputation could be insurmountable.

ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 09:  Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speak during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. This is the second of three presidential debates scheduled prior to the November 8th election.  (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
ST LOUIS, MO - OCTOBER 09: Democratic presidential nominee former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (R) and Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump speak during the town hall debate at Washington University on October 9, 2016 in St Louis, Missouri. This is the second of three presidential debates scheduled prior to the November 8th election. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Assuming, Hillary Clinton is elected president next week, the collective sigh of relief heard ’round the world could well be deafening.

Way back in June (i.e., before the revelations about Trump’s fondness for groping women surfaced), a Pew Research Center survey found that more 80 percent of Swedes, Germans, French, British, Japanese and Australians, had “no confidence” in Trump’s ability to handle foreign affairs. Their skepticism wasn’t surprising, insofar as the Republic nominee had already revealed himself to be the living embodiment of the “Ugly American” stereotype: a bumptious blowhard who knows little about foreign policy and isn’t troubled by his own ignorance. There are undoubtedly some U.S. rivals who will be disappointed by his defeat: the Islamic State will be deprived an ideal recruiting poster, Putin won’t have an admirer in the White House, and Xi Jinping won’t get to go up against rank amateur with a short attention span and long record of failure. For the rest of the world, however, it will be a moment to exhale and to be grateful for a bullet dodged.

That sense of relief may be short-lived, however, because Trump’s candidacy and the broader condition of American politics have already done considerable damage to America’s image overseas. If you talk to foreigners a lot (it’s part of my job), you mostly hear repeated expressions of bewilderment: they find the Trump phenomenon as hard to understand as America’s fondness for guns. The French newspaper Liberation called him the “American Nightmare,” and a diverse array of foreign media outlets offer similar appraisals. Or as the New York Daily News headlined in March: “As [Trump] sinks lower, he does lasting harm to America’s image in the world.”

But it’s not just Trump. In fact, the entire 2016 election has been a pretty poor advertisement for American democracy, as well as a sobering referendum on the foreign policy the United States has pursued since the end of the Cold War. Hillary Clinton and her foreign-policy team may be ardent defenders of U.S. liberal hegemony and eager to reassert American “leadership,” but the 2016 campaign made clear that a sizeable percentage of the American population thinks differently. To be specific, most of the people who supported Trump, Bernie Sanders, Gary Johnson, Ted Cruz, or Jill Stein are unhappy with the approach the United States has taken for the past quarter-century, and they aren’t going to be eager to support a return to overactive U.S. interventionism. Just this week, a survey by the Charles Koch Institute found that only 14 percent of Americans thought U.S. foreign policy had made the country more secure since 2001, and only 25 percent supported an expanded military role for the United States.

To make matters worse, the Trump campaign has revealed that a fair number of Americans seem to like the Donald’s disdainful and bigoted views of Muslims, Mexicans, and most U.S. allies. It can’t be encouraging for the citizens of other countries to discover that a non-trivial chunk of the American body politic is xenophobic, racist, protectionist, and ill-informed. That may always have been true, but it took the Trump campaign to put it up in bright lights.

2016 also reveals that the two-party system (or at least the two parties that currently dominate that system) is badly broken. More than 150 million Americans are technically eligible to be president, yet somehow this long and costly process produced two major-party candidates with historically strong negatives and repeated episodes of bad judgment. And it’s not like the alternatives were any better. The Republican primary was a clown show — I mean, seriously: Marco Rubio? Ted Cruz? Chris Christie? Ben Carson? — and the reason why a boorish cad like Trump could steamroll them all. On the Democratic side, all those earnest Sanders supporters never seemed to realize he was both a one-note candidate and one of the least popular or effective members of the Senate. If this collection of contenders was the best the American system could offer up, no wonder foreign observers are beginning to think something is broken.

Alas, the problem isn’t just the campaign. The recurring dysfunctions at both federal and state levels reinforce the growing sense that something has gone badly awry with America’s other political institutions. Congress can’t pass budgets or ratify trade agreements, won’t even bother to hold hearings on Supreme Court nominees, won’t vote either to authorize the use of force or to withhold authorization, won’t conduct genuine oversight of the intelligence community, and won’t perform any of the other key functions the Founding Fathers designated for them. Instead, representatives and senators spend more time “dialing for (campaign) dollars” than they do legislating, while the rascals most responsible for all this obstructionism keep getting reelected. Several U.S. states are flirting with bankruptcy; gerrymandering is endemic; media outlets spew fact-free bile on a daily basis; and the country’s existing institutions seem incapable of undertaking clear, obvious, and farsighted initiatives and then bringing them to fruition.

Seriously: Is this a political system you’d like to try to persuade another country to adopt? Good luck with that.

In many ways, in fact, the 2016 election is looking like the antithesis of 2008. Back then, the United States elected its first black president. He was untested on the national stage, but millions of Americans responded enthusiastically to his eloquent and upbeat vision of hope. Think about it: a mere seven years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans somehow elected a man with a Muslim father and a Muslim name. Even more remarkably, they elected a man whose middle name was Hussein, only five years after we had invaded a country whose tyrannical leader had that name, too. The rest of the world saw in the 2008 election the energy, creativity, imagination, fearlessness, and hope that has long characterized America’s providential history. If America could do that, they thought, it could still surprise the world and still do great things. And it is perhaps worth remembering that Barack Obama is today the most popular politician on the planet.

In 2016, by contrast, the Trump phenomenon and the GOP-induced paralysis in national institutions shows an image of America that is fearful, that has lost hope, that is guarding its prerogatives and privileges as meanly as Gollum guarded the Ring. Nov. 8 will expose Trump as the loser he always was (and not for the first time) but his candidacy itself has already done a lot of damage.

Perhaps the only consolation in all this is that politics in the U.K., the Philippines, Turkey, Italy, and many other places have been equally unsettling. And there is a silver lining, at least potentially. If global impressions of American democracy could decline so sharply from 2008 to 2016, then in theory they could swing back just as quickly now.

Engineering that shift will be Hillary Clinton’s greatest challenge. The success of her presidency — including the success of her foreign policy — will depend not on whether she ends the Syrian civil war; resolves the disputes over the South China Sea; caps North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs; conjures up a stable government in Yemen, Libya, or South Sudan; liberates Crimea; gets major carbon emitters to abide by the Paris climate accord; or successfully manages any of the other foreign-policy problems that her advisors will be eager to address. Rather, the success of her presidency will depend on whether she can figure out a way to get America’s democratic system working again. Not perfectly or brilliantly, perhaps, but at least competently.

The surest way for her to fail at that task would be to take on a bunch of ambitious new burdens abroad. She may be tempted to do so, because then she wouldn’t have to deal with a pesky or obstructionist Congress and she’ll get some grudging support from interventionists, hawks, and the numerous special interest groups which are always trying to get Washington to do something, somewhere, on behalf of someone. But heading down this road would mean spending a lot of time and energy on intractable problems of minor importance and such efforts aren’t going to produce any big or significant victories. Instead, it will make her look as ineffectual as John Kerry now appears and give her domestic opponents lots more to carp about. Nor will more chest-thumping U.S. “leadership” make Americans safer or more prosperous. Getting the house in order here will do that, however, and showing that American political institutions still work reasonably well would also improve the country’s standing around the world. After the Bizarro-World campaign of 2016, that’s going to be challenge enough.

Photo credit: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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