The United Nations General Assembly’s annual session is practically Coachella for international diplomacy. Every September, heads of state, ambassadors, deputies, and other foreign relations staff representing the organization’s nearly 200 member nations congregate in New York City to lay out the global agenda for the following year. Speeches are given. Meetings are taken. Receptions are held. Relationships are strengthened.
But that’s during a typical year. On September 22nd, for the first time in its 75-year history, the assembly was mostly virtual. Representatives still sat inside the assembly hall at the U.N., but they were socially distanced and wearing masks. Most of the seats were empty. World leaders opted to pre-record speeches that were projected on a screen looming above the iconic green marble backdrop in front of which they would usually speak. The press barely covered it.
While presidents typically address the assembly for at least half of an hour, Trump read from a teleprompter set up at the White House for seven minutes. His speech sounded like he’d cobbled it together that morning from fragments of aggrieved tweets. He bashed China and the World Health Organization, which he pulled the U.S. out of in July. He lazily reeled off a list of his accomplishments, misrepresenting nearly all of them. He threw up a middle finger at the decades of generally fruitful global cooperation that preceded his presidency, insisting instead that every nation should look out for itself and itself alone. “As president, I have rejected the failed approaches of the past, and I am proudly putting America first, just as you should be putting your countries first,” Trump concluded. “That’s OK. That’s what you should be doing.”
It hasn’t been OK. After four years of Trump’s “America first” — or, more accurately, “America only” — approach to international relations, the U.S. is less respected and less influential than it has been in decades. Allies have begun to situate themselves to account for a future without the support of the now not-so-dependable world leader, while China is poised to fill whatever negative space America may leave atop the global order as it continues to alienate itself. Instead of leading the fight to tackle generational issues like the climate crisis, nuclear proliferation, and a world primed for pandemics, the U.S. is actively exacerbating them. The world is changing. America is cowering.
Some, like former Secretary of State John Kerry, believe Trump’s time in office is simply “a grotesque and unfortunate hiatus,” and that a Biden administration would be able to restore America’s standing among its allies. “We are the world’s largest economy, the most powerful military, and we have traditionally been looked to as the leader of the free world,” he says. “The sad reality of Donald Trump is that there is at this moment no leader of the free world. Joe Biden can restore that.”
Others aren’t so sure. In a recent essay for Rolling Stone, Canadian anthropologist Wade Davis argued that Trump’s bungled response to the pandemic marks the “end of the American era,” one that began following the Second World War but that has been made unsustainable by incessant war, the “myth” of exceptionalism, and a “cult of the individual” that led tens of millions to buy into Trump’s perverted, zero-sum idea of sovereignty. “For better or for worse,” Davis writes. “America has had its time.”
Trump has done plenty to torpedo his own reputation abroad, but none of his failings have reflected so poorly on America itself than his refusal to mount anything resembling a serious defense against Covid-19. In addition to downplaying the virus domestically, Trump has been openly hostile to anything resembling international collaboration, neglecting to communicate with allies and even holding up a U.N. Security Council ceasefire resolution because it contained an indirect endorsement of the WHO. After first praising China’s response, Trump blamed the nation as soon as he needed a scapegoat. He made clear in his address to the General Assembly in September that he’s not concerned with doing much else. Meanwhile, over 230,000 Americans have died, a number that is poised to balloon as temperatures drop and cases continue to spike. The U.K., France, and Germany have responded by instituting another round of lockdowns. Trump is holding to his strategy of saluting the flag and hoping the virus goes away “like a miracle,” as he claimed it would all the way back in February.
“We have this exceptionalist tradition that tells us we have the secret sauce for everything,” says Stewart Patrick, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of Sovereignty Wars: Reconciling America With the World. “What we’re discovering with the pandemic is that we don’t have the secret sauce for shit.”
THE PRIDE BEFORE THE FALL
In January, the Pew Research Center released a study that found that confidence in the U.S. president had cratered from 78 percent during Obama’s last year in office, to 31 percent for Trump. Meanwhile, favorability toward the United States had only declined 11 points. The president was hobnobbing with dictators, disparaging allies, starting trade wars, ripping up multilateral agreements, and embarrassing himself with a never-ending string of gaffes, but, for the most part, America was still America. Trump would be gone eventually.
But in September, Pew released another study gauging how the pandemic may have altered this perception. It found that confidence in Trump dipped to an anemic 16 percent, while average favorability toward the United States dropped over twice as many points just this year (53 percent to 31 percent) as it did from 2016 to the end of 2019 (64 to 53). The pandemic response was not just a Trump problem, the world seems to have reasoned; it’s indicative of something fundamentally wrong with the United States.
“The U.S. has traditionally been a leader in things like global health, and taken a lead when large-scale global catastrophes have taken place,” says James Dobbins, a State Department veteran and author of Foreign Service: Five Decades on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy. “The sheer incompetence with which the U.S. has managed its domestic health catastrophe is I think startling for most of the world. We are the country that put a man on the moon 50 years ago.”
Earlier in September, Dobbins co-authored a paper for the Rand Corporation, a global policy think tank where he is a fellow, charting the decline of American influence up to and during the Trump administration. Following the Second World War, the U.S. rebuilt the global order around itself, buttressing it with multilateral organizations like the U.N., NATO, and the World Trade Organization. For the remainder of the 20th Century, the U.S. flourished, both in terms of economic and military might, and also in its ability to inspire trust, foster cooperation, and lead by example. This trust was earned through a fidelity to these organizations, relatively consistent foreign policy, and a commitment to upholding human rights, albeit selectively.
As Dobbins notes, the United States wasn’t without its flaws, but it was constantly trying to better itself. It was a nation that underwent a civil rights movement, and a few decades later elected a black president. “A significant aspect of the global march toward democratization was that the United States, the first functioning democracy, was an example of what can be achieved,” he says. “A strong part of Obama’s popularity around the world was precisely who and what he was. It had a tremendous impact.”
But Obama’s election was one of America’s only bright spots of the 21st Century, which has been characterized by a series of foreign policy failures stemming from the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and the 2008 financial crash, a greed-fueled catastrophe felt around the world. Foreign confidence in the U.S. began to wane, as did domestic interest in international engagement. “The Trump phenomenon is not an accident,” Dobbins explains. “It’s a consequence of a diminished American commitment to global leadership, and among several causes, the rising income disparity has led Americans to have less confidence that that leadership role is beneficial to them.”
The bottom fell out with the election of Trump, who preyed on this disillusionment with an “America first” agenda that took cues from the pre-Second World War, Nazi-friendly movement of the same name, and from the right-wing populist isolationism Pat Buchanan tried to run for president behind in the Nineties. “It has absolutely no positive international agenda or international vision of the world and the U.S. role in it,” Patrick says.
Trump made quick work of dismantling the undergiridings of what was left of America’s leadership status. Confident the only diplomacy needed was his own ability to negotiate one-on-one, he gutted the State Department. Its budget was slashed by nearly 30 percent in his first year in office, while several key positions either were left vacant or were filled by junior-level staffers. “People-to-people diplomacy is critical in knowing a country and understanding a problem before it becomes a bigger problem,” Kerry says. “The day-to-day diplomacy done by professionals in the foreign services is critical to America’s safety and security. He handicapped that from the get go.”
“I served from basically Vietnam to Afghanistan,” says Dobbins. “During that period, the American representative was always the most important person in the room. That’s just not true anymore.”
American didn’t choose to engage with the world to win a popularity contest. There are tangible benefits to investing in collaboration with allies — and diplomacy with rivals. If Iran has a nuclear bomb, it’s in America’s best interests to work with allies to prevent that from happening. The U.S. is similarly better able to counterbalance China if it has Europe’s backing. And the U.S. relationship with China is a critical piece of the global economy and a critical tool for addressing the climate crisis. The list goes on forever. Everything is connected. “What Trump doesn’t understand is the logic of why the United States has organized its power globally in a more consensual way than any other great power that came before it,” Patrick says. “If you don’t simply throw your weight around, other countries will actually buy into some of the purposes that you’re establishing. But you have to realize you’re not always going to get your own way and all of your own preferences.”
Trump’s negligence of the value of engaging with the world is also evident in his antipathy toward the multilateral organizations that helped enrich America throughout the mid-century years Trump has tried to reclaim. A few months after taking office he whined that the U.N. hasn’t “lived up to its potential” and that “you don’t see the United Nations, like, solving conflicts.” A year later, as the administration began to ramp up its family separation policy at the border, he withdrew the U.S. from the U.N. Human Rights Council. A few months after that he threatened to leave the WTO, arguing it was “set up to benefit everybody but us.” He’s made similar threats to pull the U.S. out of NATO. He followed through on one to pull out of the WHO this summer.
“These institutions are often dysfunctional, but you have to roll up your sleeves and actually get to work doing the hard work of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy to try to make them more effective,” Patrick explains.
Take the WTO. It’s not perfect. As Patrick notes, none of these institutions are. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. and its allies couldn’t have found ways to put its framework to good use. Maybe, say, to hold China in check. “You have a weakening of an institution that needed to be reformed, and that could have been used as leverage to change Chinese behavior,” says Torrey Taussig, a fellow at Brookings Institute’s Center on the United States and Europe. “That was one missed opportunity, and it’s in line with the overall approach you’ve seen the Trump administration take toward multilateral relationships.”
“It’s hard to attribute the president a lot of coherence in terms of his grand strategy toward foreing policy,” says Patrick. “But to the degree that there’s been a consistent theme, it’s this critique of globalism and this notion that the United States is getting taken for a ride by all of these different international institutions.”
The same goes for multilateral agreements, most notably the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump tore up in 2018, seemingly for no other reason than because it was brokered by his predecessor. Trump had been nitpicking the deal for years, particular the “sunset provision” that lifted restrictions on Iran’s ability to enrich uranium after 10 to 15 years. But now that Trump reneged on it, leaving nothing in its place, Iran has 10 times the amount of enriched uranium the deal allowed, and is expected to be able to produce a nuclear weapon by the end of this year. “[The Iran deal] would have given us 15 years to continue to work on the problem,” Dobbins says. “He’s thrown away at least the first five years of that effort.”
Part of the reason allies have traditionally been able to rely on the U.S. is that, regardless of which party occupies the White House, its foreign policy has remained relatively consistent. Sometimes, it has been consistent to a fault; the war in Afghanistan persisted and Guantanamo Bay remained open throughout Obama’s time in office. But the whiplash effect of the Trump administration has been so severe that allies are now reassessing the extent to which they can trust America. “There was a sense that whether or not Trump was here for four or eight years, that Trumpism would outlast Trump and that Europeans needed to be more self-reliant in order to pursue their interests on the world stage,” Taussig says.
This applies to defense, as Trump has threatened NATO. It applies to trade, as Trump has instituted tariffs without warning. It especially applies to China. For example, the Trump administration has been pushing European nations to ban Chinese company Huawei from building out their 5G networks. But the newly competitive nature of America’s relationship to its allies has made it a harder sell. “They were not willing to toe the line on the U.S. request for a ban because they didn’t trust how the United States would take the issue without its own country, and how it could become a part of the U.S.-China trade war,” Taussig says. “It’s just this broader pattern of distrust that is kind of seeping into policy debates throughout Europe.”
The debate within Europe about taking a new approach to its relationship with the U.S. started to foment with the Iraq War, took off when Trump was elected, and, in Taussig’s estimation, “is not just going to go away should the Biden administration win.”
Biden has already committed to rejoining the Paris Agreement, reaffirming America’s commitment to NATO, working to repair the Iran nuclear deal, and other basic measures to undo to the surface-level damage Trump has wrought. He’s also a known quantity. That helps, too. Still, the extent to which he will be able to restore faith in the United States remains to be seen, as does the long-term impact of four years of Trump. But even if Biden does everything right, there’s no going back to the way things were.
“It’s tempting to think that somehow we’ll look back on this as some weird parenthesis or some interregnum between two normal orders,” Patrick says. “But I don’t think you can put Humpty Dumpty back together again.”
But given how the world is changing, how easily pandemics can spread, the degree to which the climate crisis will define the future, and how rapidly China is gaining influence (a Pew poll released in October found that most nations consider China to be the world’s greatest economic power), instead of returning to normalcy, the United States should be working to cultivate a new vision for its place in the world. “We have an opportunity to not go back in time with our European partners, but to truly reinvent the relationship,” says Taussig. “To look forward, look at shared challenges that we face on the world stage together, and really drive significant partnership on these issues, whether it’s trade, technology, or the climate.”
Part of this effort is going to have to involve more humility. Not only did America elect Trump, it’s flat-out failing as a nation in several fundamental metrics. A Social Progress Index released in September found that the U.S. ranks 28th out of 163 nations, and is one of only three nations — the others being Brazil and Hungary — to be worse off than when the first Social Progress Index was released in 2011. As the New York Times points out, the U.S. ranks number 1 in the world in quality of universities, but number 91 in access to basic education. It ranks number 1 in medical technology, but number 97 in access to health care. The list goes on, raising the question of just how exceptional the United States really is.
“That’s been one of the problems with this notion of American leadership,” Patrick says. “We just haven’t made a psychological adjustment to the notion that we’re actually more of a normal country than we’d like to be. That’s been true on the Democratic side, too. I get a little bit worried when you hear ‘indispensable nation’ and stuff like that coming from the Biden campaign.”
Though Kerry is no stranger to the kind of rhetoric Patrick is bemoaning here, he acknowledges that the U.S. can’t approach foreign policy with arrogance, despite the role it has played in shaping the modern world. “We’re living in a different world because many people have achieved exactly what we wanted them to achieve,” he says. “We wanted them to develop, to grow the middle class, to become partners in various endeavors around the world. We should not be surprised that having done that some of them have established a better standard of living and want a seat at the table.”
What some laud as benevolent freedom spreading, others deride as imperialism. The world the United States sought to develop was one comprised of capitalist nations playing ball in a U.S.-aligned global market — and countries that defied that hegemony are brought back in line by force.
But Kerry still hews to this ideal of American exceptionalism, and the belief that the world is better off with the U.S. serving as watchman. This idea of exceptionalism emboldened Kerry’s generation to push — or some might say foist — America’s values on the rest of the world. “I believe most people in the world want to be free,” he reasons. “I think they honor America’s role in helping to carry that standard, and I think people would welcome American being America again.”
“America being America again” is a complicated prospect that means different things to different countries. But if Trump secures another term in office, the ideal of America as a force of good in the world, one which has become largely abstract over the last 20 years, could very well be lost irrevocably. Wade Davis, the Canadian anthropologist, believes America’s sun is setting as its citizens continue to die from the pandemic. Others are going to wait and see. “It’s not like this can’t be salvaged,” Patrick says. “But I think it needs to be under new management for that to occur.”