Donald Trump Has Made America a Back-Row Kid
The days of other countries looking to the United States for leadership are coming to an end.
“How will America help fix this?” During our time in the Obama administration, this was a common refrain, one we heard over and over from our foreign counterparts about global problems. They saw the United States as the leader on a broad range of issues — from combating terrorism to combating climate change — not just because of its tremendous economic and military strength (though that certainly helped). They believed in American “soft power” — the ability to set the agenda, bring others to the table, draw up a game plan, and take the lead in implementing that plan. In a world of unrelenting challenges, this expectation can be exhausting, and it can often seem like a burden. But the fact that so many countries look to the United States to provide the answers should be viewed as a blessing — it is what makes America exceptional.
Many things contribute to America’s global influence: its history of forming global coalitions, its government policies that set the tone, its “can-do” spirit, the power of U.S. example on issues like human rights, and, yes, its raw military and economic might. But America’s sway in the world also hinges on the culture of U.S. foreign policy that is propagated — and embodied — by the sitting president.
Most presidents understand this intuitively. “A platoon leader doesn’t get his platoon to go that way by getting up and saying, ‘I am smarter, I am bigger, I am stronger, I am the leader,’” President Dwight Eisenhower said in 1954. “He gets men to go with him because they want to do it for him, because they believe in him.”
For decades, American presidents of both parties have sought to enhance this pull of attraction by the policies they promote as well as how they act in office. They have understood that this is much more than being charitable or well liked. It is about commanding respect, maintaining other countries’ faith in U.S. institutions and values, and inspiring others to take action. It is also about coming to the table with ideas and getting things done.
This is never easy. Whether Republican or Democrat, presidents often struggle with getting others to believe in them and follow along. President George W. Bush was often derided as a callow cowboy, and President Barack Obama was seen as too aloof. Yet each was able to operate within the broad consensus that has embodied U.S. foreign policy for decades. But President Donald Trump is something altogether different. Because he prides himself on breaking with tradition and doing things his own way, he risks tearing down the culture of U.S. foreign policy. This is one of the reasons many Republican national security professionals are uncomfortable working for him.
As a president, Trump leads by insult, intimidation, bluster, and boast. His policies are deeply troubling in many areas, whether it is pulling out of international agreements, threatening trade wars, or slashing the budget for diplomacy or development. Though some of his chief advisors — the so-called adults like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson — are more technocrats than ideologues, they are working on many issues (such as Taiwan, Middle East peace, and NATO) to bring Trump’s policies into the mainstream. But what they can’t fix is Trump’s leadership style and the cultural shift it represents — here in the United States as well as abroad.
For America’s global partners, especially in Europe, Trump is wholly different from any U.S. president they have encountered. He is instinctually more autocratic than democratic, so it’s not surprising that he’s more at ease with monarchs and autocrats, as they are with him. Massive gilded palaces, family courtiers, oligarchic friends, and rule by decree make up the environment in which he is more comfortable, and fawning crowds and a pliant press are what’s desirable. Trump’s behavior is less confounding if he’s seen not as a leader who aims to succeed in a democratic system of government and steer the free world, but as someone who is more familiar with the norms of autocracy. By considering him in the mold of strongman — more Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe than U.S. President James Madison — his choices make more sense.
The result is a profound shift in the culture of U.S. foreign-policy leadership, in which traditional democratic allies see the president not as a problem-solver but more as a challenge to be managed or worked around. At the same time, U.S. foreign policy under Trump is more recognizable to illiberal leaders in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. It’s no wonder that they are confident in improved relations, because in Trump they see someone like themselves.
Irrespective of how they view the Trump presidency, many foreign leaders are wondering if he will get things done. When all eyes turn to him at the next international summit or emergency session in the wake of some tragedy, will he be able to restore faith in America’s capacity to lead and compel others to follow? Trump certainly thinks so. Yet based on how few of his campaign promises he’s delivered on in the first six months of his presidency (no Muslim ban, no health care bill, no tax reform, no moving of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem), many have their doubts.
To be sure, the United States remains too powerful to ignore, and there will still be many policies where close cooperation will thrive. But as leaders grapple with the reality of Trump, they expect a U.S. president who will be more contentious and distracted while less reliable and predictable. (That’s why leaders in Germany and Canada are openly questioning whether the United States still has their back, and why Asian partners are trying to revive the Trans-Pacific Partnership without the United States.) Worse, instead of being admired, Trump is becoming a laughingstock, mocked by leaders from Australia to France. With allies disillusioned, America is diminished.
Already, fewer leaders are asking what America will do to fix global security problems. So we’re left with the simple fact that in Trump’s effort to make America great, he has made it less exceptional. Trump’s base might rejoice in pulling inward and disrupting the culture of the presidency, but as he has already started to witness firsthand, the world isn’t rejoicing. Damaging America’s image of leadership will have lasting consequences for our security.
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2017 issue of FP magazine.
Illustration by Matthew Hollister