The world has watched in consternation as America’s tensions and hypocrisies have spilled out onto its streets. Our standing in the world is in freefall—treaty allies in Europe avoid meetings with the president, NATO signatories can no longer rely on the promise of mutual defense, and authoritarian leaders are reaping a windfall of support from Washington.
The rest of the world is rightly horrified by the actions of the administration of Donald Trump, in no small part because what happens in the United States has an outsize effect on the wider world. America’s future, for better or worse, will still shape the world’s.
For all its squandered prestige, the United States can still draw on a unique reservoir of goodwill and soft power—if it becomes, once again, willing and interested in exercising it. An end to Donald Trump’s experiment with inconsistent and transactional foreign policy is a necessary but insufficient first step to restoring America’s moral standing in the world. The United States will have to dramatically reform its governance, and act with consistency in its treatment of all its citizens, partners, and allies. The United States will be able to lead in a constructive way once it erases the unwholesome divide between its image as a republic that cherishes rights, and its current reality of reactionary obstructionism and minority rule by a tiny, plutocratic elite.
Global Race to the Bottom
The United States’ reputational problems long predate Trump. The country’s sordid history of racism formed a central plank of anti-American messaging by the Soviet Union and its allies during the Cold War. More recently, a series of catastrophes have marked the post-9/11 era. The administration of George W. Bush alienated international friends and enemies alike with an unfettered global war whose worst excesses included the illegal invasion of Iraq, the normalization of torture, and a policy of detaining perceived enemies without trial. The mishandling of the occupation of Iraq, and of the 2008 financial crisis, further shook the image of America as a competent world power. American credibility has been declining for decades.
But this moment is different, with the United States’ integrity fundamentally shaken at home and its bona fides in doubt worldwide. For, arguably, the first time in a century, it’s not clear whether the leadership of the United States is committed even theoretically to rule of law, justice, and equality—the principles that gave Americans hope during previous dark chapters of the nation’s history.
Today, a mismanaged response to the COVID-19 pandemic has left 116,000 Americans and counting dead, with African Americans dying from the disease at a rate nearly three times higher than whites. At the same time, a spate of highly publicized killings of African Americans—by both the police and private citizens—has spurred a nationwide protest movement.
These national tragedies might be navigable for the United States, in its dealings with the rest of the world—but for Trump’s response.
Those national tragedies might be navigable for the United States, in its dealings with the rest of the world. But it is Trump’s response that has really fundamentally sabotaged American capability and influence abroad. As police forces have violently curtailed the constitutional freedoms of protesting citizens with impunity, Trump has gleefully espoused authoritarian rhetoric. He has personally overseen the teargassing of demonstrators outside the White House, bringing comfort to dictators who used to chafe at the American promotion of democracy. Trump’s endorsement of racist violence and his deployment of military forces against peaceful demonstrators have been a profound setback to American standing and credibility. This conduct is only the latest episode in a presidential term that has had a nearly singular focus on implementing antidemocratic policies and destroying checks and balances. The prospects for permanent democratic erosion are real.
But while the Trump era has inflicted irreparable harms on American society and power, it has also clarified the sources of America’s strengths on the world stage. Those strengths are partly a function of the United States’ still-considerable political, economic, and military power, but also, crucially, an outgrowth of American soft power and the values upon which America’s democratic experiment were purportedly founded—but which the country has struggled to achieve. That struggle is now playing out on streets across the United States, and has endowed the growing protest movement with an undeniable moral authority wholly absent from the government it holds to account.
Only a major resurgence of functional, responsive domestic politics and international engagement can reverse a worldwide race to the bottom, in which a chauvinist and increasingly autocratic United States has, sadly, become a leader.
The clearest pathway for an American course correction is to translate the aspirations of the protest movement into concrete actions, and the sooner the better. Four more years of “America First” will fuel a conclusive retreat from democratic norms and governance, while solidifying the current anarchic conditions of the international order. But simply stopping the damage the Trump administration is causing will not be enough to revive American global standing; that will also require a major democratic renewal, reestablishment of competence, and fundamental reform.
America might not be a wholly exceptional city on a hill, but it remains an indispensable global power center, capable at its best of leading meaningful international efforts to solve the most pressing issues of our time, like climate change, refugee flows, corruption, and economic inequality—all of which are inherently global and multilateral concerns, and not local or even national matters. A renewed international order won’t represent a return to the status quo before Trump, or to the post-Cold War unipolar moment. The global order has changed in significant and fundamental ways, and the United States will have to recalibrate its expectations and marshal its diminishing power more responsibly.
A restoration of prestige requires Americans and their leaders to internalize that there should not be an artificial distinction between “domestic politics” and “foreign policy.” We operate in a connected world; how we approach our economy, our civil rights, and security are interlinked, whether we’re dealing with the “foreign” (a trading partner, or an ally against the Islamic State) or the “domestic” (an auto manufacturer, a trade union, or a community that’s an ally in the fight against a public health threat).
A New Governing Compact
Following the United States’ serial post-Cold War blundering, it is perhaps surprising that it has any room left to maneuver. But the chaotic nature of the international order and the specter of an overreaching, clumsy, and autocratic China have both aided America’s opportunity for recovery. Far from serving as a natural transition for global leadership, China’s bellicose nationalist rhetoric has sharpened the stakes of the current moment and reinforced concerns about its increasingly prominent role. In fact, China’s lack of transparency and cooperation in response to COVID-19, its increasing efforts to enforce autocratic norms abroad, and its resort to economic coercion all mirror the Trump administration’s approach, reminding democratic nations of the danger posed by both. Such concerns offer a reforming United States an important platform for constructively repairing relations with allies.
How the United States as a society responds to the current moment of interconnected crises will shape not only our future democracy, but also our position in the world. Our domestic policy is the engine of our economic strength, the laboratory for producing competent governance, and the base for the exertion of moral leadership.
We are in the middle of an epochal test, with emboldened police states and autocrats around the world gaining momentum from their now-explicit endorsement by the authoritarian in the White House. Further tests await us in the near future, from the possibility of a contested transition of power if Trump loses the November election, to the inevitable second wave and possible third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that scientists expect over the next year or two. The United States remains both a bellwether and a catalyst. Washington has the opportunity to model democratic, collaborative behavior and help turn the tide worldwide—or it can accelerate a race to the bottom.
We are in the middle of an epochal test, with emboldened autocrats around the world gaining momentum from the authoritarian in the White House.
The United States will have to go even further than Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, argued in his recent essay “Foreign Policy By Example.” Haass rightly observes that the United States loses stature abroad and emboldens autocratic rivals when the White House unleashes its armed forces against peaceful demonstrators and turns a blind eye to racist injustice. If Trump leaves office in January 2021, however, the United States will have a brief window of opportunity to make a course correction. To do so will require more than repair work abroad—the United States will have to radically remake its governance and worldview. The severity of damage that the Trump administration is inflicting on American democracy—the administration deepens the wounds almost daily—means that remedial action is growing ever more urgent. A new administration will need to act swiftly and extensively to revive the country.
The asymmetric American political polarization of recent years has ripped the country’s social fabric and rendered security and foreign policy hostage to a know-nothing, conspiracy-laden discourse.
But that version of the United States is not the only one. The worldwide solidarity extended to the American protest movement reflects enduring attachments to American ideals and the continued worldwide relevance of developments in the United States. American influence is remarkable and defies significant odds. Even with a ridiculously inept, borderline authoritarian presidential administration, crumbling institutions, and an almost farcical gap between American ideals and reality, the opportunities for the United States on the world stage are real. The country can regain its role as a global leader and source of hope, but it will require showing that it is actually capable of solving problems and acting with moral purpose.
The work starts at home. The most urgent tasks, from a reputational standpoint, are twofold: The first is respect for the demands and free-speech rights of the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. The second is a competent and coordinated response to what will likely be the second year of the COVID-19 crisis. Reversing these self-inflicted traumas will provide a starting point for renewed leadership on other pressing global issues, such as climate change, inequality, and multilateral security.
The alternative—an increasingly autocratic and dysfunctional United States—is grim, for Americans and for the world.
header photo:President Trump stands with German chancellor Angela Merkel, French president Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte Macron, and Russian president Vladimir Putin (from right to left) at an Armistice Day commemoration in Paris, France, on November 11, 2018. Trump skipped the wreath laying ceremony. Source: Kremlin.