While the G20 summit in Germany didn't feature the leaders laying their hands on a glowing orb, it did offer a vivid illustration of just how far the United States has fallen in the mere six months that Donald Trump has been president. He has broken many of the promises he made as a candidate, but he has certainly come through on his pledge to make American foreign policy more inward-looking and contemptuous of the interests of the rest of the world. We're just beginning to see the results.
To put it simply, the very idea of "American leadership" in the world is on indefinite hold for as long as Trump remains president. We still have the largest economy, strongest military, and most influential culture, but other countries know they can no longer look to America as a partner or a leader in any common endeavor. Trump has made it clear that he has no interest in any initiative that doesn't provide him and the U.S. benefits at the expense of other countries and peoples. It's not just "America first," it's "America first and the rest of you can go screw yourselves."
And they're getting the picture. Now that Trump has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and expressed his disdain for trade agreements more generally, other countries are making their own deals without us. The European Union just completed a free-trade agreement with Canada, and is moving forward with another deal with Japan. "Major economies show no inclination to accept American designs on trade," The New York Times reports, and "are effectively proceeding with plans to bolster globalization just as the United States is turning to protectionism." You can see it in public opinion, too; when a recent Ipsos poll in 25 countries asked whether various countries exercised a positive influence on world affairs, Canada scored the highest, with 81 percent of respondents saying their influence was a good one. The United States was down at 40 percent—a 24-point drop from where it was when the poll was taken a year ago.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration's climate denialism continues to isolate us from the world. The administration announced its intent to pull out of the Paris Agreement that included almost every country on earth, and at the G20, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the lead in getting the other 19 countries to agree on a statement affirming the nations' intention to address the problem. Trump may give belligerent speeches about how "our civilization will triumph" if we fend off threats "from the South or the East, that threaten over time to undermine these values and to erase the bonds of culture, faith, and tradition that make us who we are," but Merkel is increasingly viewed as the closest thing there is to the leader of the free world. In recent Pew Research Center polling, people expressed more confidence in Merkel than in Trump in 17 of the G20 countries—including the United States. The only exceptions were South Africa, India, and, of course, Russia. While Merkel was negotiating with other leaders, Trump sent his daughter to sit in for him and went before the cameras to whine about the news media and Barack Obama.
Trump's ongoing dalliance with Vladimir Putin only makes him look more pathetic to the world. The day before their much-anticipated meeting, Trump cast doubt on the universal conclusion of American intelligence agencies and independent cybersecurity experts that Russia engaged in a concerted campaign to attack Democrats, to aid in Trump's election, and likely also to penetrate state election systems. "Well, I think it was Russia, and I think it could have been other people in other countries," he said at a press conference. "It could have been a lot of people interfered." He didn't mention the 400-pound guy sitting on his bed whom he as previously fingered as the likely culprit, but who knows? Afterward, Putin and his foreign minister claimed that Trump accepted the Russian leader's denial that Russia was behind the meddling, which Trump's aides say isn't what happened—but the president himself won't say that, apparently since that would mean both stating clearly that Russia was at fault and contradicting Putin, which Trump seems unwilling to do on any subject.
Then most stunning of all, Trump proclaimed on Sunday in a tweet that "Putin & I discussed forming an impenetrable Cyber Security unit so that election hacking, & many other negative things, will be guarded." So instead of punishing Russia for interfering in our elections, we're going to ask them for their help in ... keeping Russia from interfering in our elections. After all, there's no way they could use what they learned against us, right? Well played, Mr. President. You really are a master negotiator.
The reaction to that idea was predictable: mockery and contempt. So let's take another look at Pew data to see just how dramatically Trump has affected America's image in the world. They surveyed people in 37 countries, and the results are remarkable. While a median of 64 percent of people in foreign publics said they trusted the American president when it was Barack Obama, that number has now plunged to 22 percent. The number expressing a favorable view of the United States has fallen from 64 percent to 49 percent. "Across the 37 countries that Pew Research Center has tracked over the past several years, only in Russia has the image of the United States improved by a large margin," they write. Funny how that worked out. "Elsewhere, attitudes have taken a dramatic turn for the worse, especially in Western Europe and Latin America." Trump's withdrawal from the climate agreement, his plans for a border wall, and his immigration policies all get predictably low marks around the world.
Republicans have a story they tell about the way the world views America and its president whenever there's a Democrat in the White House. The story says that the Democrat is weak and ineffectual, winning him scorn from a world that respects only strength and resolve. When a Republican becomes president, America once again stands tall, as across the globe people gaze up at his manliness in wonder and admiration.
It was never true, and never has it been less true than it is now. But ask Donald Trump about the fact that he is so disliked around the world, and once he was done denying it, he might say, "Who cares what a bunch of foreigners think?" Yet there may come a time when he will need the help of our traditional allies and partners to accomplish something that's in America's interest, or that of the world as a whole. And then he'll discover how alone he really is.