Present at the Destruction of U.S. Power and Influence

Four years of neglect, unilateralism, and failed diplomacy have left America’s alliances in tatters. It’s time to rebuild them.

U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the cabinet room at the White House on July 9 in Washington, DC.
U.S. President Donald Trump sits in the cabinet room at the White House on July 9 in Washington, DC. JIM WATSON/AFP via Getty Images

A world without U.S. leadership is no longer some vague and lamentable future possibility. We are seeing with our own eyes what such a world looks like, with the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic a prime example. In May, as the worldwide death toll surpassed a quarter of a million people, leaders from all over the world joined by videoconference to coordinate efforts to find and raise money for an effective vaccine. The summit was organized by the European Union and ended with pledges of more than $8 billion, along with commitments by world leaders to pool their efforts to find and distribute effective medications against a virus from which none of their citizens were safe. Other than its virtual nature, it was the kind of gathering we have always envisioned when we picture global cooperation to deal with a major emergency but for one striking fact: the absence of the world’s richest and most powerful country, the United States. In the midst of the kind of global crisis that would usually lead much of the world to look to Washington for leadership, the chair normally reserved for the United States was empty.

The failure of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to build an international coalition to combat the coronavirus is in fact only the latest manifestation of a deeper and potentially lasting failure. Indeed, among all of Trump’s foreign-policy legacies, none may be more consequential than the damage he has done to America’s standing, influence, and power in the world by weakening the system of partnerships and alliances the country has created and relied on for decades. A world without U.S. leadership is no longer some vague and lamentable future possibility.Since the start of his presidency, Trump has abandoned multiple treaties and agreements, undermined the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees, bullied and belittled allies, and cozied up to dictators who threaten those allies and the United States. His “America First” doctrine—with its ominous echoes of the 1930s—and indifference to the rule of law at home and abroad have left allies wondering if they can count on the United States; many have started to look elsewhere for more reliable friends and partners. The result is a world in which the United States is less safe, less respected, and less able to deal with the enormous challenges it faces: climate change, pandemics, refugees, cyberattacks, election interference, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, modern technology, and the rise of China.

The collapse in global regard for the United States has been breathtakingly swift under this president. Even before collapsing further due to Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic, confidence in him to “do the right thing” in international affairs stood at just 29 percent among 32 countries polled—down from 74 percent in former President Barack Obama’s final year in office. Global confidence in Trump is significantly lower than in German Chancellor Angela Merkel (46 percent), French President Emmanuel Macron (41 percent), and Russian President Vladimir Putin (33 percent)—and just one point higher than in Chinese leader Xi Jinping (28 percent). Germans are now equally divided on whether the United States (37 percent) or China (36 percent) is their closest partner, while just 28 percent of Britons trust the United States to act responsibly. Confidence in Trump is only 36 percent in Japan, 32 percent in the United Kingdom, 28 percent in Canada, 28 percent in Brazil, 20 percent in France, 13 percent in Germany, and a mere 8 percent in Mexico, while favorable views of the United States have fallen from 64 percent in 2016 to 53 percent in 2019. Asked in June whether she trusted Trump, Merkel paused before saying only “I work with elected presidents around the world, including, of course, the American one.”

The importance of functioning international partnerships and institutions is not an abstract or an elite concern. As we have observed firsthand in Afghanistan and Iraq, the troops who have to fight wars without allied military by their side come disproportionately from working families and from the U.S. heartland. And as was made manifestly clear on the Democratic primary campaign trail earlier this year, it is farmers, consumers, and exporters who suffer heavily when the United States stumbles into trade wars. Global rules, norms, and institutions help open markets for American companies, protect American workers, keep threats away from U.S. shores, govern technology, manage financial crises, and defend the country’s values abroad.

Americans agree that allies and partners should have to pay their fair share to help meet global challenges and keep the world safe. But they also do not want to live in a world that would put their own interests at risk without rules, friends, or partners. Recent polls show that nearly 7 in 10 Americans believe the United States should “take an active part in world affairs” (compared with just 3 in 10 who say “stay out”), while more than 7 in 10 also believe that U.S. military alliances with other countries contribute to U.S. safety. Clear majorities of Americans believe that security alliances in East Asia, Europe, and the Middle East either mostly benefit the United States or benefit both the United States and its allies, with less than a quarter of those polled saying—as Trump seems to believe—those alliances mostly benefit the allies. As Mira Rapp-Hooper points out in her new book, Shields of the Republic, the United States has been joined by allies in every war it has fought since the early 1950s, and U.S. security guarantees have helped persuade a number of countries—including Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Turkey, Australia, Sweden, and Germany—not to develop nuclear weapons programs. As the coronavirus catastrophe has reminded us, a single war, terrorist attack, pandemic, catastrophic climate event, or nuclear confrontation could end up costing the United States far more than all the money it invests in maintaining the alliances and partnerships that help prevent such tragedies from happening.A single war, terrorist attack, pandemic, catastrophic climate event, or nuclear confrontation could end up costing far more than maintaining the alliances and partnerships that help prevent such tragedies from happening.

Sadly, Trump’s systematic rejection of allies and alliances is accelerating rather than abating. Indeed in the past two months alone, the United States has announced the unilateral withdrawal of some 10,000 U.S. troops from Germany without consulting or even informing the German government; rejected allies’ pleas that it remain party to the Open Skies arms control treaty; found itself all alone on the United Nations Security Council trying to extend an arms embargo on Iran on dubious legal grounds; alienated all its G-7 allies with a proposal to invite Putin to the group’s next meeting; and terminated its relationship with the World Health Organization during a pandemic, drawing widespread criticism from allies while increasing China’s leverage in that organization. With the United States now isolated on so many fronts, the next administration—one that we, the authors, hope will be led by former Vice President Joe Biden—faces a daunting task in rebuilding the United States’ global alliances and partnerships and restoring trust and confidence in the country and its leadership. As Biden has recognized, that agenda starts at home: by restoring the moral authority and soft power that have been so critical to the United States’ success around the world and by revitalizing the U.S. State Department, demoralized after years of poor leadership and funding cuts. The project must also be accompanied by a plan to revive diplomacy and rebuild U.S. alliances all around the world.

Repairing ties with Europe

The first step of such a project must be to repair fractured ties with the United States’ democratic partners in Europe. For 75 years, presidents from both parties have believed it was in America’s interest to invest in a strong and united Europe after the devastation of two world wars. In contrast, Trump has described the European Union as a “foe” that was “really formed so they could treat us badly.” Trump administration officials tout “America First” and demonstrate an ideological fetish for “national sovereignty”—without appearing to realize or care that the last time the United States and other countries pursued trade wars and aggressive nationalism, it deepened the Great Depression and led to World War II. Trump complains that the EU was “set up in order to hurt the United States on trade,” overlooking the reasons why former presidents such as Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy strongly supported European unification as a way of building a network of partners that share U.S. values, buy U.S. goods, invest in the U.S. economy, support the United States when it is threatened abroad, and contribute to development around the world.

Trump has also done serious damage to NATO, repeatedly questioning whether the United States would uphold its treaty commitment to stand by its partners—the underlying principle of any collective defense—unless they “pay their bills.” That approach not only undermines the solemn word of the United States but could make an attack on a NATO member more likely. Trump falsely claimed that NATO was “going down like a roller coaster” when he took over and pretends to have persuaded allies to contribute “hundreds of billions” of dollars more to the alliance. In fact, defense spending in Europe has been rising since the Russian invasion of Ukraine more than two years before Trump took office. Trump’s repeated argument that the United States pays up to 90 percent of the costs of defending Europe reflects either deep ignorance about NATO and defense budgeting or, worse, a deliberate attempt to mislead his supporters into turning against the alliance. It also fails to recognize that U.S. spending on NATO—a fraction of the overall defense budget—is not a charity project: European allies provide land, infrastructure, and financial subsidies for American bases that are used to protect U.S. interests not just in Europe but in Africa and the Middle East. Trump’s decision in June to unilaterally withdraw troops from Germany doubtless pleased Putin, but it only raised further questions in Europe about the reliability of the United States.Repairing ties with the United States’ most like-minded, democratic partners means working with them on critical issues such as climate change, global health, the Iran nuclear issue, and China.

Repairing ties with the United States’ most like-minded, democratic partners means working with them on critical issues such as climate change, global health, the Iran nuclear issue, and China. The policy changes necessary to achieve these goals are not gifts to Europe but in the United States’ own interest and supported by most Americans. Majorities of Americans want to see the United States maintain or increase its commitment to NATO (78 percent) and to participate in the Paris climate accord (68 percent) and Iran nuclear deal (61 percent). None of these challenges can be met by the United States alone.

Greater burden-sharing with allies is certainly necessary, but it cannot be productively accomplished by bullying them or focusing only on the narrow and arbitrary measuring stick of defense spending as a share of GDP—a standard that rewards countries for spending inefficiently or on defense objectives that the United States may not share. What the United States should expect from its allies are tangible contributions to common goals, not just for the conventional defense of Europe but to global development, nonproliferation, counterterrorism, poverty reduction, and peacekeeping. The United States’ global allies once willingly consented to U.S. leadership, but as Michael Fullilove, the head of Australia’s Lowy Institute, has put it, “if you push your allies and partners to the brink in every negotiation, and present your ugliest face to the world, then this consent will evaporate.”

Rebuilding partnerships in Asia

Rebuilding ties with democratic partners in Asia is just as essential. One of America’s greatest advantages in its growing strategic competition with China is its voluntary global network of alliances, while China—whose closest ally is North Korea—wins international support only out of fear or economic incentive. Yet at a time when the United States should be consolidating those alliances to deal with China economically and strategically, Trump risks unraveling them.One of America’s greatest advantages in its competition with China is its voluntary global network of alliances, while China—whose closest ally is North Korea—wins support only out of fear or economic incentive.

Trump has undermined U.S. alliances in Asia from the moment he took office. He flirted with the idea of cutting back support for Taiwan to satisfy China before backing away from that—at least for now. He has repeatedly threatened to pull U.S. troops out of Japan and South Korea—a dramatic step that would embolden China and North Korea and increase the risk of conflict. Instead of recognizing the benefits to the United States of forward-deployed forces—on bases largely paid for by the host countries—and negotiating allied burden-sharing in good faith, Trump has treated U.S. troops as mercenaries and demanded outlandish sums from Seoul and Tokyo to maintain a continued U.S. presence. Such an approach, which borders on extortion, damages the trust, credibility, and interoperability of forces that are the foundation of U.S. alliances.

As part of his failed courtship of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Trump agreed to scale back joint exercises with South Korea—a decision he made without informing the U.S. Defense Department or the South Korean government. While focusing on North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile threat to the United States, he has shown relative indifference to the short-range nuclear threat to Japan and South Korea, undermining the very notion of alliance solidarity. Trump’s willingness to tone down support for democracy protesters in Hong Kong while lavishing praise on Xi for his handling of the coronavirus crisis in order to curry favor with China over trade has also shaken the faith of the United States’ Asian partners more widely. Allies unable to rely on the United States to defend them will inevitably be forced to align with Beijing.

Trump has also damaged U.S. economic relations in Asia, placing tariffs on South Korea and Japan at the very same moment that he embarked on a trade war with China. That trade war resulted in high costs for U.S. taxpayers and consumers and lost markets for U.S. farmers before finally leading to a “phase one” trade deal that failed to address either the bilateral trade deficit with China or the main structural problems in the U.S.-Chinese economic relationship. By requiring China to direct its heavily subsidized, state-owned enterprises to purchase more U.S. goods, the deal actually reinforced the role of the Chinese state in the economy. In an integrated global economy, China can easily get around unilateral U.S. tariffs by selling products in other markets, which is exactly what it is doing. A united international front—based on shared economic and security interests with partners including Australia, Britain, Canada, the EU, India, Japan, Mexico, and South Korea—would boost U.S. leverage immeasurably and force China to open up its markets, stop stealing intellectual property, and abandon cyber-espionage for commercial gain.

Developing new alliances in Africa and Latin America

Trump has not only undermined existing alliances but has missed opportunities to develop new ones—particularly in Africa and Latin America. By 2025, nearly one-fifth of the world’s population will live in Africa, 60 percent of whose people are now under the age of 25. Africa boasts 1.2 billion consumers, an increasingly innovative and technology-based business environment, and seven of the 10 fastest-growing economies in the world, which have lifted millions of people out of poverty and into the global marketplace. In 2019, Africa launched its first-ever comprehensive free trade area: the African Continental Free Trade Area, which currently comprises 28 countries and is expected to create a $2.2 trillion regional economy. Pro-democracy movements are demanding better governance in countries such as Algeria, Sudan, Zimbabwe, and Cameroon. Women’s groups and female leaders continue to play an increasing role—in Rwanda, women make up 61 percent of the country’s parliament, the largest female representation of parliamentarians anywhere in the world.Trump has not only undermined existing alliances but has missed opportunities to develop new ones—particularly in Africa and Latin America.

Unfortunately, instead of taking advantage of this new dynamism, the Trump administration has largely ignored Africa, disparaged its governments and people, issued travel bans against the citizens of several of its most populous countries (Nigeria, Eritrea, Sudan, and Tanzania), and sought massive cuts in U.S. development, counterterrorism, and humanitarian assistance. While Russia and China have devoted increasing time and attention to the continent, the United States has been virtually absent, failing to take advantage of growing opportunities in trade, to support U.S. companies to compete better with Chinese and Russian initiatives, and to work with its African partners to promote economic development and cooperation on climate change, food security, natural disasters, and the prevention of pandemics.

In the Americas, too, key bilateral relationships have been deeply strained by the Trump administration’s approach to immigration and trade and its rhetoric about Hispanic migrants. Tackling these cross-border issues—as well as regional problems such as Venezuela and Cuba—simply cannot be done without close cooperation with Latin American partners and institutions. This means not only repairing ties with partners such as Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Colombia but also deepening U.S. engagement with multilateral forums like the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the Mercosur and Pacific Alliance trading blocs.

To compete with China’s growing role in Latin America, the United States should work with like-minded governments—such as those of the free market-oriented Pacific Alliance and other extrahemispheric partners such as Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan—to develop truly enforceable protections against non-tariff barriers and intellectual property theft so that all states can interact on a level playing field. In strategic sectors targeted by the Chinese such as ports and logistics, the administration should use U.S. laws and regulations to incentivize the private sector to invest and work with Latin American states to dissuade them from turning to China. And it should make cooperation on energy and climate a priority. Countries of the Western Hemisphere are the source of more than 65 percent of U.S. energy imports and share the United States’ profound interest in curbing climate change before it is too late.

Revitalizing U.S. policy in the Middle East

Finally, no attempt to revitalize the United States’ global partnerships and alliances will be possible without major changes in the Middle East. The Trump administration has approached this challenge by ignoring U.S. values entirely and cutting cynical deals with regional leaders so long as they support some of the administration’s political or geopolitical goals. Trump refers to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as his “favorite dictator” and a “fantastic guy.”Trump’s approach to Saudi Arabia, for example, is essentially to give its leadership a pass on domestic repression and reckless regional actions—as long as Riyadh continues to buy American weapons and supports the administration’s policy of aggressively confronting Iran. In Egypt, the administration seems untroubled by the government’s corruption, repression, and interference in neighboring Libya, with Trump referring to Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi as his “favorite dictator” and a “fantastic guy.” In Israel, Trump seems to have decided that his domestic political imperatives require him to give unqualified support to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government. This had led the Trump administration to turn a blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion and to present a so-called peace plan that has no chance of being adopted and has been rejected by the European Union, the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, and most other countries around the world.

Maintaining security partnerships with imperfect allies and partners in the region will be necessary, but the United States’ relative energy independence and the realization that large military deployments are not the answer to the region’s problems should make it possible to maintain—and modernize—those partnerships without sacrificing the country’s values. The United States should maintain security, intelligence, and economic cooperation with Gulf and other security partners but also make clear this will not prevent the United States from holding them to account for human rights violations, fighting corruption, or using its leverage to press them to resolve disputes with their neighbors. The United States must always provide the support necessary to keep Israel secure but should not hesitate to oppose measures, such as the unilateral annexation of territory, that contradict the security interests of both the United States and Israel and will undermine Israel’s future as a secure, Jewish, democratic state.

Reversing unprecedented damage and restoring U.S. leadership

In less than four years, Trump has caused unprecedented damage to the system of alliances and partnerships that took the United States many decades to construct. It is frightening to think of the greater damage that would happen if Trump were elected for a second term. Trump’s own former national security advisor, John Bolton, recently wrote that he thought it “highly questionable” that Trump would keep the United States in NATO if given another four years in office, adding that the alliances with Japan, South Korea, and Australia were also “question marks at this point.” Current and potential allies and partners around the world are still crying out for U.S. leadership—even more so now that they have seen what its absence looks like.For decades, Trump has shown nothing but contempt for allies and alliances, and he has acted on that instinct throughout his presidency, even in the face of sustained resistance from some of his top advisors. As Bolton put it, “There’s no telling what he’ll do in a second term once he doesn’t have to worry about satisfying the Republicans in Congress anymore or the Republican base. … Anything is possible in the Trump administration.”

Biden has made clear that it will be one of his highest priorities immediately on taking office to avoid this fate and repair the immense damage Trump has done to the United States’ international partnerships. Current and potential allies and partners around the world are still crying out for U.S. leadership—even more so now that they have seen what its absence looks like. A new administration can rebuild and revitalize U.S. leadership by restoring the United States’ soft power, treating allies with respect, and working with others to address global problems. The Lowy Institute’s Fullilove puts it succinctly: “The world still wants to believe in America. But we need Americans to help us believe.” It is in the United States’ own interest to do just that.

Pete Buttigieg is a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate.
 Twitter: @PeteButtigieg

Philip H. Gordon is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, a former White House coordinator for the Middle East in the Obama administration, and the author of Losing the Long Game: the False Promise of Regime Change in the Middle East.