It’s time to stop asking whether the Trump administration believes in U.S. global leadership as we’ve known it since World War II. The answer is clear now. It doesn’t.
It’s also time to stop hoping that the officials around Trump can prop up international institutions as fast as he assaults them. Cabinet secretaries and career diplomats may be soothing Americans, but they aren’t fooling foreigners.
No, President Trump and his enablers are ushering us into a new, post-American stage of global relations, at the speed of Twitter. Increasingly, Washington is viewed by other nations a problem to be managed rather than a leader to be sought. World leaders are building new relationships – and jockeying for the space we’ve left behind – as fast as they can, while the U.S. trashes its relations and fights over the last election at home. On security, politics, and economics, no one is waiting for the grown-ups, the midterms, or Vice-President Pence.
Consider our closest ally, the United Kingdom. The country has suffered two grievous terror attacks in the last two weeks. Its sitting prime minister is one of few world leaders with whom the Trump White House enjoyed cordial relations — so much so that the White House floated the idea of a Trump visit after the most recent London attacks. The British government was having none of it though. Trump and his team had both undercut Prime Minister May’s short-term political prospects and run over some of the two countries’ most basic shared interests. When Trump raced to Twitter to exploit the London attacks for domestic political points even before basic facts were clear — including twisting the words of the popular (and Muslim) mayor of London — he demonstrated why the ruling Conservative Party thinks of him as a loose cannon whose presence might send British voters into the arms of the Labour Party when the country votes on Thursday. There’s also the awkward matter of Nigel Farage, the former head of the right-wing U.K. Independence Party, who’s been named as a “person of interest” in the FBI’s investigation of Trump–Russia 2016 campaign contacts. U.K. conservatives are quietly picking up former UKIP voters — and don’t need the embarrassment of the connection being spotlighted. Suddenly America is that kind of country though — an ally to keep at a wary, and often awkward, distance.
Hanging over the whole election is the stark new reality that the next British government will have to contend with. Washington broke confidentiality agreements and enraged U.K. law enforcement with leaks after the Manchester attacks. And Trump’s refusal to reaffirm NATO’s core principle — an attack on one is an attack on all — leaves the U.K. badly exposed between a Europe it has left and a U.S. it can no longer count on.
Other key European allies have also started treating us in ways that would have been unthinkable until last year. The French and German publics are so angry at Trump that leaders are mocking him to rile up their supporters. French president Emmanuel Macron and his government are trolling the U.S. daily in (English-language) social media ahead of France’s parliamentary election — in which his party has surged to an unexpectedly strong lead in polling. German premier Angela Merkel, who once looked to be in trouble in German elections this fall, is riding high as she soberly tells the German public that the days they could depend on others outside Europe are over.
Campaign insults may be forgotten, but the follow-up actions to build relationships and institutions that don’t depend on Washington — and downgrade those that do — will be harder to reverse. American businesses want U.S.-EU agreements that harmonize environmental and health regulations, which saves them money — but after Trump left the popular Paris accord those will be harder to come by. The general chill in relations is likely to mean a decline in European support for any potential U.S. military actions. That means more deployments for American service members, and more of the bill footed by American taxpayers. It may also mean less European willingness to host and help pay for the U.S. military bases that support Middle East operations. In the long term, the perception that Europe’s interests are different are likely to lead toward exactly the opposite of Trump’s call for Europe to spend more money on NATO. Instead, we may see moves toward security institutions based on the EU — where the U.S. is out of the loop — instead of NATO.
Outside Europe, countries that we are used to thinking of as partners — and perhaps junior partners — are stepping up to fill space the U.S. is vacating. China has amped up its rhetoric about being a global climate leader — rolling out a new partnership with the European Union and lecturing about “international responsibility” to manage global warming, in tones we’re more used to hearing from Washington, not directed at it. You can’t open a foreign-policy journal without finding an article on “One Belt One Road,” China’s regional economic plan which it is touting as a vehicle for foreign investment and integration — a stirring contrast to the U.S. pullout from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (even if there is less to “One Belt” than meets the eye). And as Beijing offers diplomatic and economic carrots, it has kept up its shows of force in maritime territories it disputes with U.S. partners and allies. China is building its own leadership on its own terms, thank you very much.
So is India. President Trump had scarcely left Europe when Indian prime minister Modi arrived for a four-country tour, including trade talks and pledges to strengthen the global order with Germany and — on the heels of Trump’s Paris climate-deal pullout — work together on the environment with France’s Macron. At the same time, Indian defense officials were at a regional meeting pledging assistance to Vietnam’s military. Memories of Indian reluctance to commit on climate, and its discomfort at Washington’s role supporting Vietnam and other Southeast Asian powers, were fading fast — as fast as any expectation that Washington would take the lead again soon, on either front.
Heather Hurlburt (@natsecHeather) has held foreign-policy positions in Congress, the White House, and State Department.