Trump’s ‘America First’ Politics is Conceding Global Leadership to China

by Tony Wyman

With the mass shootings that left dozens of Texans and Ohioans dead during the first days of August, it isn’t a wonder that most missed two vital international news stories that demonstrated just how far down American global influence has fallen since Donald Trump became president in 2017.

The two stories involved vital American allies choosing to establish treaties with other nations excluding America to preserve security in their regions.

The first was Australia, without American involvement, setting up a military training unit, called the Pacific Support Force, to assist other Pacific nations in resisting the rising influence of Chinese forces in the region.  The second was the United Kingdom, America’s closest ally, establishing the Maritime Protection Mission, again without American support, in league with European allies.  The Mission’s objective is to secure the shipping lanes – the Straits of Hormuz – through which one-fifth of the world’s oil travels, from Iranian naval vessels that recently seized a tanker in response to American sanctions on Tehran.

“It is with a heavy heart that we are announcing this increased international presence in the Gulf, because the focus of our diplomacy has been on de-escalating tensions in the hope that such changes would not be necessary,” U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said in a briefing to Parliament.

His comments put distance between London and Washington over President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the international treaty signed with Iran that prohibited the Middle East nation from developing nuclear weapons.  Mr. Trump reimposed harsh sanctions on Iran, badly hurting that nation’s economy.  Its leaders reacted by restarting nuclear activities and by taking aggressive naval action in the Strait.

It isn’t by accident that American allies are charting their own course diplomatically, of course.  In fact, it is a direct response to their lack of confidence in the United States under the leadership of Donald Trump and his “America First” approach to foreign affairs.

Trump rally with supporters holding signs
During his 2016 campaign, then Republican nominee Donald Trump ran on a platform that included putting American interests ahead of those of other countries. On the White House website, Mr. Trump says, “As we rebuild America’s strength and confidence at home, we are also restoring our strength and standing abroad.”

Pacific Basin countries, like Australia for example, are growingly concerned that tensions between the United States and China will force them to have to choose between their economic interests with Beijing and their security arrangements with Washington.  European allies, like the U.K.,  are worried that Mr. Trump’s rejection of numerous international treaties will lead to growing American isolationism, leaving the free world without a clear leader for the first time since World War Two.

America Losing Friends

While tensions with America’s European allies started before the current administration took office, relations between the continent and the colonies haven’t been this bad in decades.  In fact, positive views of the United States dropped significantly in seven European countries surveyed by Pew Research at the end of Mr. Trump’s second year in the White House.

From the last days of the Obama Administration to the end of 2018 when the poll was taken, positive views of the U.S. dropped by 31% in Netherlands, 27% in Germany, 26% in France and Sweden, 20% in Italy, 17% in Spain, and 11% in the U.K.

Germany’s Forsa Institute for Social Research and Statistical Analysis released a poll in late 2018 that showed 55% of Germans view the United States as a threat to that country, only one point lower than the 56% who see Russia as a danger.  (China, despite growing dramatically in both economic and military power, was seen as a threat by only 16% of Germans.) And 72% of Germans now want their country’s foreign policy to be more independent of the United States.

French protestors
Among European allies of the United States, approval ratings of the United States president plummeted by double digits in seven key countries from the ratings of President Obama’s last year in office to President Trump’s second year.

What’s making these numbers as bad as they are?  Largely, three things: President Trump meddling in European affairs where past presidents haven’t trod; the president’s bellicose and belligerent personality; and, the lack of a coherent and logical foreign policy European allies can enthusiastically back.

Mr. Trump has weighed in on topics such as European immigration laws, Brexit, crime in London, that city’s Muslim mayor, the military performance of France in the two World Wars, and even suggested Germany was “controlled” by Russia.

But, worse, Mr. Trump’s belligerence towards traditional American allies is causing many of them to question whether the U.S. can be trusted anymore as an ally.

Harvard International Relations Prof. Stephen M. Walt, writing in Foreign Policy Magazine, described the situation this way:

The world is now dealing with a U.S. president who appears to have no firm convictions or beliefs, the attention span of a hummingbird, and who apparently makes important national security decisions on the basis of whatever fairytale he just saw on Fox & Friends. As near as one can tell, he never saw a treaty or agreement signed by his predecessor that he liked, even though he has trouble explaining what’s wrong with any of them. He just likes to talk about “tearing them up” no matter what the consequences may be.

He added that allies and adversaries alike know the president is a habitual liar, a “serial fabulist,” whose word cannot be trusted and whose administration is so badly racked with staffing turnover that “you have an environment where no policy utterance can be expected to have a shelf life greater than a week or two.”

Under these conditions, why would any sensible government take America’s word for anything? Why would any halfway smart adversary make substantial concessions to the United States in exchange for U.S. promises, assurances, or pledges? Why offer up a quid in exchange for its pro quo? Based on its recent track record, and the character of the current U.S. president, no adversary would concede a thing unless it were 100 percent certain the United States would deliver as promised. 

Why, indeed. Deputy Director-General of the International Institute for International Studies Kori Schake agrees.  In her article about the price tag of Mr. Trump’s America First policy coming due, she warns that America’s days as the de facto leader of the free world are in jeopardy and that this will have a direct impact on American power.  “If the U.S. doesn’t act in concert with others, it will have less absolute power,” she wrote.

America’s friends are choosing to dissociate themselves, believing their interests are better served without American strength. It seems the rest of the world is losing faith that the U.S. is a reliable partner, sober and taking others’ interests into account as well as its own. The U.S. is ceasing to be a country that its allies come to for help solving problems. 

Trust in American Leadership at All-Time Low

According to Gallup, America’s image as the global leader hit an all-time low in 2018 and things haven’t improved in 2019.

Chart of view of American leadership.
The world’s view of the leadership of the United States has taken a steep drop since the election of Donald Trump. While the positive view most foreigners have of the U.S. remains roughly the same, most allies of the U.S. have significantly less respect for the current American president than they had of past ones.

The president’s supporters, folks who largely are unconcerned about what foreigners think about America and her president, might wonder why we should care about how the rest of the world sees the U.S.  But it is that image that allows the nation to retain its position as the leader of the free world and a beacon to others across the globe, lighting the path to how their nations should be.  If America has a grave image problem overseas, it loses a great deal of its power and ability to influence other nations, reducing its effectiveness as a leader and harming its national security.

“Where hard power is reflected in America’s ability to impose its economic and military might on others, soft power is the type that makes people in other countries want to align their interests with the U.S. — not because they have to, but because they want to,” said Gallup.

Studies have shown that the ability of the United States to inspire citizens of foreign countries to align their national politics with the interests of America has led directly to policies that benefit the U.S.  The opposite is also true.  When America’s image is negative within a country, that soft power can also result in policies and practices that harm the U.S.

This suggests that America’s recent unpopularity may be making it harder to lead globally. But it might affect more than foreign countries’ policies toward the U.S. Newer research at Berkeley indicates soft power may even negatively affect trade. The researcher found that America’s recent unpopularity abroad is costing the country billions of dollars in global trade.

This soft power is impacted by the leadership of each country, positively or negatively, depending on how the public views the leader.  According to Pew, for the first time ever, the world rates the leader of Russia, Vladimir Putin, on the same level of the American president, 30% and 31% approval, respectively.  Meanwhile, China’s leader, President Xi Jinping, enjoys the highest rating any leader of his country has ever gotten, at 34%.

The Rise of China

As America appears to be retreating from its responsibilities as the leader of the Free World, China has expressed its intention to become the world’s greatest superpower within the next three decades.

In a speech he gave before the National Congress in 2017, President Xi Jinping outlined the path he wanted China to take to become “a mighty force” that would lead the world militarily, economically and politically.  “The Chinese nation…has stood up, grown rich, and become strong – and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation. It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making greater contributions to mankind.”

Since that speech, the official Chinese position has been the current system of global governance must change, that it is based on outdated views of the world established by the West following the Allies‘ victory over the Axis powers at the conclusion of World War Two. That system, the Chinese say, promotes the idea of spheres of interest governed by global powers that perpetuates a “Cold War” mentality that reduces global cooperation and leads to unnecessary security challenges that are, in this age of nuclear weapons, a threat to the very existence of human life on the planet.

This view, that the nations of the world should come together in the common purpose of ending conflict, reducing the gap between rich and poor, and addressing the threats posed by environmental dangers and terrorism, is increasingly popular throughout the world.

While the approval of Chinese leadership hasn’t reached a point yet where it reflects the planet’s recognition of Beijing as the globe’s de facto capitol, it does show the nation is gaining more clout.  In fact, according to Pew, 70% of the people in the world believe China has more influence in the world today than it had 10 years ago.  Only 8% think it has less influence.

Conversely, 25% believe the United States is less influential than it was 10 years ago, while 31% think it has more clout than it did.

To a great degree, this view of the two nation’s clout is driven by Mr. Trump’s view of America’s role in the world.  While he sees the U.S. taking a more unilateral stance, looking out for its own interests more and withdrawing from international agreements he believes are unfair to America, Mr. Xi sees an opportunity for China to step into the void left by Mr. Trump’s withdrawal.

Chinese President Xi.
Chinese President Xi spoke before the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2017. During his speech, he made a passionate defense of international trade and declared the world economic order must change.

This was made clear in a speech the Chinese president made at Davos to the World Economic Forum in 2017.  Following President Trump’s comments declaring the U.S. would withdraw from major multinational trade agreements, President Xi made a passionate speech defending the value and benefits of global trade, staking claim to China’s position as the leader in international commerce and stating clearly that Beijing was ready to step up and reshape the way the world economic order works.

“The United States may no longer want to be a provider of global security and public goods, instead, pursuing unilateralism and even nationalist foreign policy,” Mr. Xi said later, according to a state run news service.  “The overall direction of multi-polarization of the world, the globalization of the economy and the democratization of international relations has not changed…No matter how the international situation changes, we must maintain our strategic steadiness, strategic confidence, and strategic patience.”

Strategic patience is exactly what Mr. Xi and the Chinese are practicing.  And while they continue on the path towards becoming the world’s dominant superpower, President Trump, making America great again by putting America first, is making that trek much smoother than any American president before.

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