An American embarrassment
US President Donald Trump went on his first foreign trip last month, and despite the ostentatious welcome his hosts in Saudi Arabia prepared for him, it became clear as the trip progressed—through Israel, then the Vatican, then the NATO meeting, then the G7 summit—that the world was witnessing the loss of American global leadership, and that the least qualified president in American history was both symbol and cause.
In symbolic terms, the first reality TV star who became American president made an awful impression on social media and on television: looking like a movie villain in that deeply weird moment with the orb in Saudi Arabia; saying nonsensical things (“We just got back from the Middle East,” for starters) to the obvious consternation of his hosts in Israel; shoving the leader of Montenegro aside to get to the front row for a photo op; berating Nato leaders as they looked on bemused, as though indulging a toddler throwing a tantrum; starting then losing a handshake duel with the French President; failing to walk together with the other G7 leaders and instead having to take a golf cart. There was even a video—released by French President Emmanuel Macron on his own Twitter account—where Macron is showing walking towards the Nato leaders and swerving at the last moment to avoid meeting Trump first.
In image after memorable image, Trump’s first foreign trip was shown for the disaster that it was. Even his visit with Pope Francis proved to be meme-friendly—and not in a good way for Trump. If there was any doubt before he embarked on the trip that Trump had a fair shot at being the world’s most mocked man, the mockery that ensued should erase all uncertainty.
In real terms, Trump promoted his narrow “America First” policy in such a way that ensures that the United States will face greater economic and security threats: criticizing Iran’s democratic elections from the safety of repressive Saudi Arabia, completely misunderstanding the nature and purpose of Nato, picking fights with traditional allies like Germany, refusing to join other G7 leaders in backing the Paris climate change agreement. As many have already observed, Trump’s foreign policy can actually be better understood as “America Only.”
As we have argued in this space before, Trump’s controversial election is a turning point in history, because he represents that paranoid isolationist tendency in American politics that will undo the global order in place since the end of World War II. Already, the leader of the strongest economy in Europe, Chancellor Angela Merkel, has called for less reliance on the United States (and post-Brexit Great Britain).
Does this mean that President Duterte was right in pivoting away from the United States, into the waiting arms of China? Not exactly, not completely.
Even in its decline, the United States retains the most powerful military in the world. It remains the world’s largest economy. Its soft power has no parallel in the world, and its democratic institutions have been functioning well enough to mitigate some of the worst Trump policies. American courts, for instance, have struck down Trump’s Muslim ban. States like California, which by itself has a larger GDP than Russia, have also taken a stand against Trumpism. In other words, there is real resistance against Trump’s constricted notion of the US role in world affairs.
Vietnam offers an instructive example. Despite its assertive position against Beijing’s overreach in the South China Sea, it enjoys close economic ties with China. Its neighbor is in fact its largest trading partner. At the same time, it is a favored destination of foreign direct investment from the United States. This week’s visit of Vietnamese Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc to the United States has helped seal billions of dollars in business deals; Phuc says as much as $15 billion, the US Commerce Department says $8 billion. By any measure, it’s considerable—and proof that, despite the isolationist, ultra-patriotic rhetoric coming from the White House, much of the United States has not yet been Trump-ed.
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