Donald Trump will be remembered for many things, but in much of the world he is thought of as someone who, as a matter of policy, has sought to relinquish American leadership, to “put America first,” and more infamously, “to make America great again.” What he has said, essentially, is that the price of American leadership around the world has been too high, that America has been a victim of its own generosity, duped by the rest of the world, and never properly compensated. His solution: Let the world take care of its own problems while America takes care of itself.
When he arrived in Japan for the recent G-20 Summit, he immediately laid out his views of how the U.S. has gotten a raw deal, taking issue with Germany, India and even his hosts, the Japanese, whose prime minister has worn out a pair of golf shoes trying to become the president’s BFF. For Prime Minister Abe’s efforts, the president thought it a good time to question whether, in the context of the U.S.-Japan security alliance, Japan really would have any role in helping the United States in the event it is attacked, or would the Japanese prefer simply to watch developments on their “Sony television sets”?
His ungracious, sarcastic comments about Japan, Germany and India were only the opening salvo. His meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping revealed more clutchless shifts in Trump’s trade policies, exposing a president who appears to have no idea what is next in the U.S.-China relationship, often and accurately described as the most important relationship the United States has in the world.
In between appointments, Trump tweeted out a suggestion to North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to meet him at the demilitarized zone between the two Koreas to say hello — leading to last Sunday’s photo op, in which Trump became the first U.S. president to cross the DMZ into North Korea, and an invitation for Kim to visit the White House. And then there was a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose highlight was a jocular, mirthful comment by Trump, “Don’t meddle in the (U.S.) election.”
These are just some of the most recent examples of Trumpian foreign policy carnage. They were preceded by weeks on end of picking a fight with Iran; blasting friends and allies in Europe and elsewhere; attempting a coup in Venezuela; cozying up to the Saudis; and unveiling a naïve plan for Middle East peace. There appears to be no foreign policy team; there is a national security adviser with an apparent aversion to calling interagency meetings or listening to others, or to doing the president the favor of offering a full range of policy options not all his own, and a secretary of State in a race to the bottom with the national security adviser, as if to suggest he can be pretty wild and destructive himself.
This spring, two important books — one by former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns and the other by journalist George Packer — chronicled what increasingly is being described as the end of American diplomacy. Based on the past few painful weeks, it is hard to argue with them.
Meanwhile, in Miami, the first set of Democratic Party debates took placeamidst a spirited discussion on opinions held during the 1970s-era of mandated school busing. To be sure, the candidates discussed important issues including family health care, the role of government in better distributing the fruits of the economic recovery, race relations, climate change and immigration.
But where were the foreign policy issues? There were references to the fiasco of Iran policy and to the withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear deal without the slightest thought to what would follow in its place. No one, however, attempted to address the catastrophic decline in America’s global reputation that has turned into a free fall under the current administration. The United States has not become the solution to the problem; it is the problem.
There is a coarseness to public discourse in contemporary America, but when this rudeness is exported to the rest of the world it further reduces America’s influence and capacity to lead other countries in the right direction, and therefore to further U.S. security goals.
Foreign policy often is seen in U.S. political terms as a proxy for being tough. For all the stereotyping of Latin American cultures, it is the United States that has embraced machismo, a sort of relentless combativeness that leaves everyone weaker and unable to think straight. In fact, what the world needs from the United States is not more toughness and rudeness but more wisdom.
Most of the Democratic candidates demonstrated neither. The candidate who showed wisdom, experience and clarity of thought in foreign policy was former Vice President Joe Biden. But instead of discussing those issues, he was on the receiving end of a blistering line of accusations from Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), a seasoned former prosecutor, about his positions on important issues, namely 1970s court-ordered busing, that are not necessarily foremost in the minds of people who will vote in the general elections.
Overall, the tone of the two-hour “debate” was shrill and loud, a sort of reality television based on one-liners and human interest stories, the impact of which offers no refuge for anyone in need of respite from the current administration.
Maybe when future debates are held there will be fewer candidates on the stage, offering them more time to make thoughtful comments about the problems of the world and what can be done about them. The world is not looking for a free lunch from the United States, but it is looking for wise, capable leadership that will inspire our friends and discourage our foes. Candidates for the Democratic Party nomination, you can do better.
Christopher R. Hill was a four-time ambassador including as U.S. ambassador to South Korea in 2004-05. He also served as State Department’s assistant secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs 2005-09 and was chief U.S. negotiator with North Korea, 2005-08. He is now professor of diplomacy and chief adviser for global engagement at the University of Denver. Follow him on Twitter @ambchrishill.