For years, as a seller of real estate and star of reality TV, Donald Trump made a living wooing customers and viewers. His selling skills were good enough that he even convinced voters to elect him as president in spite of his near-total lack of qualifications. Yet once in office, he has proved to be the worst salesman that America has ever had. Far from winning over other countries, he is actively repelling and repulsing them.
Trump is singularly failing to “close the deal” for America abroad. Note that, while it’s within his power to unilaterally end supposedly “bad deals” like the Trans-Pacific Partnership or NAFTA, his promises to conclude “great deals” are utterly hollow. He hasn’t made any appreciable progress on any new trade negotiations, even the bilateral ones that he favors for mysterious reasons over multilateral (and hence more beneficial) accords. Nor, needless to say, has he had any success in renegotiating the Paris climate accord, which he (wrongly) claims is harmful to America. Trump has managed to convince the United Nations Security Council to toughen sanctions on North Korea, but only because Russia and China have no intention of enforcing the resolutions. He had no luck in selling his decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem or his desire to redo the Iran nuclear deal. Allies simply don’t want to help America, no matter how much Trump blusters and bluffs.
The numbers tell the story: According to Gallup, “approval of U.S. leadership across 134 countries and areas stands at a new low of 30%.” That’s lower than the 34 percent approval during the last year of George W. Bush’s administration, in the wake of fiascos such as the Iraq War.
Republicans used to bash President Barack Obama for alienating American allies, but Trump is turning off our partners like no one ever has. According to Gallup, “Portugal, Belgium, Norway and Canada led the declines worldwide, with approval ratings of U.S. leadership dropping 40 points or more in each country.” All four of those countries are NATO members — i.e., among the closest allies that America has. The situation has gotten so bad that Trump can’t even visit the United Kingdom, America’s closest friend for the past century.
Remarkably enough, there was more approval in this international survey for Germany (41 percent) and China (31 percent) as world leaders than there was for the United States (30 percent) — the country that has, in fact, led the free world since 1942. To say this is an ominous trend is to put it mildly.
Trump is entirely focused on American hard power — military and economic might. What he doesn’t realize is that much of America’s success as a superpower has rested on our “soft power.” America is an empire by invitation: We have troops in more than 170 countries and military alliances with as many as 60 countries, because most other nations do not feel threatened by American power. Anti-Americanism is a fact of life, but the United States simply has not engendered the same kind of fear and loathing that less altruistic, more militaristic would-be hegemons have done — whether Habsburg Spain and Napoleonic France or Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. Today, China and Russia, both illiberal great powers, have a few satraps but almost no real friends. They are regarded with suspicion and hostility by their neighbors.
With his “America first” mantra and his crude attacks on other countries and regions (e.g., the “shitholes” of Africa, Haiti, and El Salvador), Trump seems intent on changing America’s image abroad from largely positive to unremittingly hostile. He cares so little about this troubling trend that he is wrecking the State Department, which is supposed to represent America abroad. Morale at Foggy Bottom is at rock bottom, as indicated by statisticsshowing that “60 percent of the State Departments’ top-ranking career diplomats have left and new applications to join the foreign service have fallen by half.”
Virtually the only foreign leaders whom Trump has shown any enthusiasm for hobnobbing with are authoritarians such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, and Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who shamelessly flatter him and dupe him into believing they are his best friends. Trump positively fawns over dictators such as Kazakhstan’s Nursultan Nazarbayev, who “won” re-election in 2015 with 97.7 percent of the vote; Trump described him on Jan. 16 as a “highly respected” leader who is doing a “great, great job.” Trump even thinks that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will be his buddy.
By contrast, Trump treats democratic leaders, such as those in Germany, Britain, Australia, and Mexico, like dirt. Shinzo Abe of Japan and Emmanuel Macron of France are two of the few democratic leaders who have cracked the code with our childish chief executive — Abe undoubtedly lets him win at golf, and Macron took him to a military parade.
Trump doesn’t seem to realize that a great part of America’s appeal abroad has been its role as a paragon and champion of liberal democratic values. He shows so little appreciation for those principles that Freedom House has just downgraded America in its annual “Freedom in the World” report. The report notes that in 2017, the United States’ “core institutions were attacked by an administration that rejects established norms of ethical conduct across many fields of activity. President Trump himself has mingled the concerns of his business empire with his role as president, appointed family members to his senior staff, filled other high positions with lobbyists and representatives of special interests, and refused to abide by disclosure and transparency practices observed by his predecessors.” Trump even attacks the bedrock principle of freedom of the press, labeling the media as the “enemy of the American people” — rhetoric that, as Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) said, is reminiscent of Stalin’s.
Meanwhile, Freedom House notes, the integrity of America’s political system was undermined by “growing evidence of Russian interference in the 2016 election campaign and a lack of action by the Trump administration either to condemn or to prevent a reoccurrence of such meddling.” Far from trying to stop the Russian interference, Trump seems intent on stopping any probe of what the Russians were (and are) up to.
Trump’s assault on democracy at home has been accompanied by a near-total lack of interest in promoting human rights abroad — except as a cynical cudgel against the anti-American dictators of Venezuela and Iran. Not surprisingly, illiberal powers such as Russia and China are rushing into the vacuum America leaves behind. As Freedom House notes, “Moscow and Beijing are single-minded in their identification of democracy as a threat to their oppressive regimes, and they work relentlessly, with increasing sophistication, to undermine its institutions and cripple its principal advocates.” Little wonder, then, that Freedom House found that “Seventy-one countries suffered net declines in political rights and civil liberties, with only 35 registering gains. This marked the 12th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.”
Britain was said to have acquired its empire in “a fit of absence of mind.” America is losing its global power in the same way. Through ignorance and malice, Trump is destroying the foundations of American influence that previous leaders spent three-quarters of a century erecting. When it comes to “soft power,” he is engaging in unilateral disarmament — and that in turn will have dire consequences for American security and prosperity. Trump is ending the Pax Americana and helping to usher in either a Chinese Century or a new global disorder where there is no international law and life is “nasty, brutish, and short.”