(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE U.S. NEWS AND WORLD REPORT)
Make America Great Again. America First. President Donald Trump’s professed view of, and vision for, America is unabashedly self-focused, putting the interests of the United States ahead of longtime international leadership roles in trade and democracy-building. On a grand scale, it’s been a retreat from such multilateral pacts such as the Paris climate change agreement. On a more focused level, it’s been protectionist trade moves such as the steep tariffs Trump approved this week on foreign washing machines and solar gear. If there’s a schoolyard theme to the approach of a president derided by his critics as a bully, it’s that the United States isn’t going to be pushed around anymore.
But as Trump prepares to speak before world thought leaders in Davos, Switzerland, then deliver his first State of the Union speech next week, foreign policy experts and veterans of previous administrations worry about the impact abroad and at home. The nation’s image has taken a hit among foreign nations who historically have looked to the U.S. for help and leadership, while domestically, Americans are increasingly unhappy with the government many grew up thinking was the model for the world.
“We’ve become America, the unexceptional,” laments Daniel Drezner, professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. As a foreign relations analysts and professor, “my job has been telling people not to panic,” whether it’s the 9/11 attacks or other crises. But now, “it’s really problematic,” Drezner adds.
“America’s standing in the world has dropped catastrophically,” says Simon Rosenberg, founder of the New Democrat Network, a think tank. “It could be that the golden age [of America] and the conditions that created it are coming to an end. What’s remarkable is that all of this is happening without any debate in Congress about any of this.”
Experts underscore that the United States is still a major world power, with a strong economy and a popular culture consumed and copied by people around the globe. The U.S. is a center for innovation, Rosenberg notes. And to be sure, it is a place where 11 million undocumented immigrants are desperately hoping to stay, and where millions more hopeful immigrants would like to live.
But recent trends – including, but not limited to, the election, bombastic rhetoric and policies of Trump – have given the country a serious branding issue. The 2018 Best Countries rankings have the United States dropping (again) this year, to eighth place, down from seventh last year (and fourth in 2016 before Trump took office). The Ahholt-GfK Nation Brands Index last year showed similar results, with the United States dropping from first place to sixth in the space of one year among 50 countries ranked. International tourism to the U.S. is down as is attendance by foreign students (who not only become leaders in their own countries, but subsidize tuitions of domestic students). For all the Trumpian worries about Mexicans coming to the United States illegally, there are more Mexicans going back over the border into Mexico than are migrating here (though the trend predates Trump’s election).
The U.S. economy remains a world power, but less dominant than it was. A generation that grew up being told to clean their dinner plates because “there are children starving in China” are now middle-aged, looking at an Asian economic and political power that greatly challenges the American influence. While the U.S. still has the largest economy in the world, perception among important U.S. trading powers show that China is eclipsing that role. According to a Pew study, seven European countries, as well as Canada and Australia, see China as the world’s leading economy. And the U.S. Is no longer one of the ten best countries to start a business in. It fell from number seven in 2017 to 13 this year in the Best Countries rankings.
Some of the trends pre-date Trump, while others appear to be a direct result of Trump’s election and policies. He pulled out of the Paris accord and the Trans-Pacific Partnership for global trade, and has talked about renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement with Canada and Mexico, a pact Trump repeatedly has said is a bad deal for the United States but which free traders in his own party argue has been good for the economies of all three nations.
The trade moves, particularly the recent tariffs on washing machines and solar products, are not surprising from Trump, who owes his Electoral College victory to states like Michigan and Wisconsin which were hit hard from competition from overseas manufacturers, notes James Roberts, a former foreign service officer and an economics research fellow at the Heritage Foundation. But Roberts adds that global trade is here, and not going back. “We don’t want to make it easier for hard-working Americans to lose more ground, but we also know we have to be realistic. We aren’t going to be able to turn the clocks back,” Roberts says.
And Trump has been direct, too, about how much American effort and military might he’s willing to expend on so-called “nation-building,” laying out a doctrine of “principled realism” in a speech last August at Ft. Myer in Arlington, Va. “We will no longer use American military might to construct democracies in faraway lands, or try to rebuild other counties in our own image. Those days are now over,” the president said. And while the words were welcome to those who have grown weary of the burden of being the world’s policeman, others view the foreign policy doctrine and retreat from global agreements as part of a pattern that will cause deep wounds – all self-inflicted – with America’s relationships. The crisis with North Korea is a case in point, veteran diplomat Michael Froman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center, noted at a symposium the center held last week on Trump’s first year.
“There’s a risk that we go from being the indispensable nation to being isolated to being irrelevant,” said Froman, who was U.S. Trade Representative and deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. A recent Gallup poll suggests Froman is not overstating it: median approval among 134 countries and areas of U.S. leadership is at a new low of 30 percent down from 48 percent in 2016. And the Best Countries data show that the U.S.’s political stability rating, as judged by the rest of the world, went from 11th in 2016, before Trump was elected, to 23rd in 2018.
Meanwhile, Americans themselves aren’t too happy with their own government and institutions. Aside from survey after survey showing low approval ratings for both the president and Congress, pride in the country’s very democracy is eroding. More than a third of Americans – 36 percent – say they are not proud of the way the country’s democracy is working, down from 18 percent three years ago, according to a poll by The Washington Post and the University of Maryland’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship. Seven in ten say the nation’s political divisions are at least as big as during the Vietnam War. A Pew Research Center poll in December found that 60 percent of Americans believe Trump’s election has led to worse race relations in the country.
A separate Pew poll found that a paltry 18 percent of Americans feel they can trust the government in Washington to do what’s right “just about always’ or most of the time.” And an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll reveals that Americans have limited confidence in almost every pillar of the country’s government and democracy, including the nation’s public schools, courts, organized labor and banks. Clocking in even lower on the confidence level were big business, the presidency, the political parties and the media. For the first time, a president went into the week before his State of the Union with the possibility that the government would not be open as he spoke because of disagreements within Congress and between Congress and the White House over immigration and children’s health care. During the standoff, Capitol Hill Republicans said they weren’t sure what the president wanted in the critical negotiations.
Congress approved a three-week fiscal extension earlier this week, sparing both branches of government that public embarrassment at Trump’s Tuesday speech to Congress.
[PHOTOS: The Big Picture – January 2018]
“I do think its dangerous and it’s certainly possible that we got into a situation that is extremely hard to get out of,” says Michael Hanmer, a University of Maryland professor and research director of the school’s Center for American Politics and Citizenship.
“There’s a ton of disagreement on issues and how to do things. The only real agreement is that government isn’t working well,” Hanmer says. “The institutions that we fall back on are broken, and there’s a lack of faith in [both] those institutions and the people running those institutions.”
International relations professor David Rothkopf attributes much of the shaky world standing to Trump – but that also means the United States can recover. Much of the “reshuffling” of the world order, too, is due to the separate development in other nations, including Germany and France as well as China, he notes.
“It’s clear that the U.S. standing is falling in these polls. It’s also clear that some of that is due to the Trump presidency, so we have to wonder to what extent that is temporary,” says Rothkopf, a visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “America is not its president” alone, he says. Trump administration officials, meanwhile, assure Americans that this president is not engineering a global retreat. “America first does not mean America alone,” Gary Cohn, head of Trump’s National Economic Council, told reporters ahead of Trump’s Davos visit. But for the moment, at least, America is not in first place.