Depending on the hour, President Trump is in open conflict with Congress, the media, the intelligence services, his own national-security adviser, his generals, and now, seemingly, his own veterans affairs director. That sort of turbulence leaves the United States paralyzed and indecisive, unable to speak with a common, or even coherent, voice on a number of important policy issues. And it appears that, on many topics, other countries have stopped listening.
Two weeks ago, Trump nurtured distrust and hostility between the United States and its allies by enthusiastically tweeting his belief that “trade wars are good, and easy to win.” As with most of his own tweets, it was characterized by sheer abrasiveness.
Over the past year, the United States has abandoned its leadership position on the global stage in many ways. The U.S. stopped leading the effort to combat climate change. The U.S. stopped leading on trade and tariffs. The U.S. raised destabilizing questions about our continued commitment to multilateral organizations and military alliances. The U.S. stopped leading on human rights and the rule of law. And these are things that Trump did with intention.
Trump justified these actions as necessary for America to be first, but the result is more like America has become alone and mostly irrelevant.
When Trump pulled the United States pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the other nations involved reworked the agreement and signed it among themselves. China moved aggressively ahead with its own web of trade and investment deals and countered Trump’s announcement of tariffs. And our partners in Canada and Mexico are thinking through how to manage without us. If the United States can’t decide how to pursue its interests abroad, and can’t propound a consistent economic strategy to friends and foes alike, it’s going to be less prosperous—as we already see with China’s retaliation to Trump’s trade tariff.
When Trump backed out of the Paris Climate Agreement, it was characteristic of Trump’s isolationism. “The Paris accord will undermine our economy,” and it “puts us at a permanent disadvantage.” What withdrawal actually means is that Trump has put America at a competitive disadvantage in the new clean energy economy. Meanwhile, Chinese prime minister Li Keqiang, while on a visit to Germany, was quoted by AFP as saying, “China will continue to implement promises made in the Paris Agreement, to move towards the 2030 goal step by step steadfastly.” America now stands as the only country to not sign on to the Paris Climate Agreement.
The Trump administration ended American membership in UNESCO, the United Nations’ cultural agency, over the organization’s alleged anti-Israel bias and signaled that it will decline to certify that the Iran nuclear agreement is in the interest of the United States, which will prompt a debate in Congress that could ultimately lead to the demise of the accord, further distancing America from its allies. He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in defiance of United Nations policy. Trump’s “America first” policy is unconvincing, but what makes it truly dangerous is his accompanying erratic pronouncements.
How will a country look to Trump, who allegedly questioned why the United States accepts citizens from “shithole” countries and who got himself into a mess of controversy when he waded into the Twittersphere with foolish tweets in the wake of the latest terrorist attack in London? In both these instances, leaders, whose voices were heard far and wide, stood together and publicly condemned Trump.
Thus comes into play what political scientist Joseph Nye deemed “soft power.” Soft power is defined as the ability of a country to persuade others to do what it wants without force or coercion. When a country fails to deploy soft power, it ultimately undermines U.S. leadership and prevents it from reaching common goals.
Trump is gutting America’s “soft power” and its credibility as a good-faith actor in international affairs. Whether it’s Justin Trudeau renegotiating NAFTA or Kim Jong Un considering a diplomatic resolution to the crisis over nuclear weapons, they will have to wonder whether they can trust the United States as a negotiating partner. They must also wonder whether they can trust any American president to honor the word of his predecessor. And when countries fear they cannot trust America, they’ll continue to ignore America and America.
This is already happening. German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel told the Berlin Foreign Policy Forum that Germany would start to pursue its own agenda, whether the U.S. likes it or not, because the West has been losing influence around the world with Trump as president. “The U.S. no longer sees the world as a global community but as a fighting arena where everyone has to seek their own advantage,” Gabriel said, according to Deutsche Welle. 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, and far lower than the 70 percent approvals America got before the Iraq War. But that’s not all. There was more approval in this same international survey for Germany (41 percent) and China (31 percent) as world leaders than there was for the United States—the country that has, in fact, led the free world since 1942.
As the world moves on and looks elsewhere for leadership, Trump is pushing his military agenda. He is relying heavily on what Joseph Nye deems “hard power”—a coercive approach to international political relations, especially one that involves the use of military power. There is no doubt that America maintains an edge over all other countries in the world in terms of military might. The U.S. defense budget already is more than the next 12 nations in the world combined, and a recent vote of Congress will increase defense spending by $162 billion. However, all of this military spending will prove irrelevant, as other countries are looking toward greater independence and assertiveness.
Trump’s actions are creating a country that relies solely on military force to influence the international stage and, when this is the case, it is not only American power that becomes irrelevant, but also American ideas. As Trump continues to frighten allies with erratic pronouncements, his voice, along with America, has become increasingly irrelevant.