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January 26, 2018 10:34 am

The Dangerous Erosion of US Global Leadership

avatar by Alon Ben-Meir


The US Congress. Photo: File.

Only one year after Donald Trump was inaugurated, the US has already suffered an alarming setback to its global leadership role. In short order, Trump managed to bewilder our friends and allies, intensify the enmity between us and our foes, and evoke fear, concerns and unpredictability in the international community.

I cannot imagine how much further America’s reputation will decline as an increasing number of countries, including our allies, have resigned themselves to the lack of American leadership under Trump’s watch, which will have major adverse repercussions on our national interests, and influence the world over.

Trump’s “America First” notion, his abandonment of our soft power, and his reckless utterances have deeply troubled countries with strong ties to the US; enraged those who have been maligned by his reprehensible rhetoric; and delighted our adversaries, while leaving America increasingly isolated.

On the issue of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and anti-ballistic missiles, instead of engaging Pyongyang in quiet diplomacy to resolve the conflict, he resorted to bellicose rhetoric and threats that only heightened tensions and brought the US and North Korea ever closer to the unthinkable — nuclear war. Since then, Trump’s comments have been chaotic — sometimes remaining bellicose, other times signaling he will indeed work diplomatically with Kim Jong-un.

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On the Iran deal, rather than trying to peacefully negotiate any changes, especially to the sunset provisions, Trump decertified the deal and threatened to impose new sanctions, which would torpedo the deal completely. He demanded that Congress modify the deal, even though the other five signatories to the accord vehemently reject any tampering of the deal because of Iran’s continued full adherence. Tehran rejects any changes, and threatened to withdraw from the deal and resume its nuclear program, which could lead to the proliferation of nuclear weapons and subject the region’s inhabitants to living in the shadows of nuclear conflagration. And rather than take action himself against the deal, Trump simply punted to Congress.

On immigration, Trump’s racist attitude toward Muslims and people of color has severely undermined America’s unique image as a country of immigrants, which made America great in the first place. His reference to Africa, Haiti and El Salvador as “shithole” countries provoked unprecedented international outrage.

Scores of American ambassadors around the world were summoned to explain the inexplicable statement. Why would a sitting US president utter such filth, in the White House no less? Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney put it succinctly when he said: “What he [Trump] communicated caused racists to rejoice, minorities to weep, and the vast heart of America to mourn.”

As to international treaties and accords, Trump has completely disregarded our commitment to live up to such agreements. He insists on renegotiating the terms of NAFTA, and effectively withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (connecting the Americas with Asia and Australia). He pulled the US out of the Paris Climate Accord and withdrew from the United Nations Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

As a result, he acutely damaged America’s credibility, making many countries wary of entering into bilateral agreements with the US, as they can no longer trust his administration to live up to our commitments. This leaves a wide opening for our adversaries to fill the vacuum that Trump has created.

Trump has further shocked all democracies around the world with his incessant assault on the press. Though a few of his predecessors have occasionally ostracized the press, none has mounted such vile criticism. He accuses all media outlets (except for Fox News) of being the “enemy” of the people, claiming they are biased and spreading “fake news” to purposefully malign him and deride his policy initiatives.

Sadly, whereas America was once seen as the beacon of freedom and democracy to be emulated, Trump is consciously undermining one of our central constitutional pillars — the free press — to the utter consternation of democracies around the world.

On the question of the US’ reliability, many countries who depend on America for their national security are worried about Trump’s commitment to safeguarding their security. Trump’s criticism of NATO, which is the core of West European security, and his appeasement of Russia, which is as the West’s staunchest enemy, raises questions as to where he would stand if Europe was threatened.

This concern is being expressed by our allies. For example, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel expressed her misgivings, stating that: “The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a bit. … [W]e Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands. … We have to know that we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.”

The fact that Trump lies as often as he breathes also deeply troubles countries around the world — because they can no longer take his word for granted on issues of major importance.

Trump seems to be totally oblivious to the reality that without American global leadership, the world will be even more chaotic than it is today. Trump has no end-strategy for Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan (he has ceded many of these places to Russia, Iran and terrorists). He also lacks focus or interest in stemming the widespread, destabilizing violent conflicts and human rights abuses around the world.

The Republican Party has become complicit in Trump’s mischiefs and misguided policies. It is now up to the Democrats to get their act together, regain control of the House and Senate, and shackle Trump before he causes irreparable damage to America’s global role and responsibility.

Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches courses on international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies. [email protected]

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