""The swiftness of President Trump’s transformation of America’s global image from a proud and valued leader to something more nearly resembling a whiny bully has heads spinning at home and abroad. Mr. Trump was elected on a slogan of “America First” and a promise that the country would never again be bound by agreements and conventions that, in his view, compromised its sovereignty. But the policies and pronouncements that have flowed from this promise have in fact made the United States, and his presidency, the object of disbelief, alarm, even derision.
America may be first in the eyes of the president, but in the eyes of the world it is in headlong retreat.
In short order, Mr. Trump has pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, ceding leadership on trade in Asia to China; refused to reaffirm the mutual defense commitment that has been the bedrock of trans-Atlantic security for half a century, forcing America’s European allies to think about dealing with threats like Russia on their own; and abandoned a landmark agreement on climate change signed by 190-plus other nations, ceding leadership on the issue to Europe and China, and, in the bargain, forfeiting the rewards of participating in a worldwide clean energy economy that the agreement will bring.
Anyone seeking answers for these reckless decisions beyond Mr. Trump’s campaign braggadocio might take note of one sentence in a remarkable op-ed article written by Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, Mr. Trump’s national security adviser, and Gary Cohn, director of the National Economic Council, for The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Trump, they wrote, has “a clear-eyed outlook that the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage.”
The authors presumably meant this as praise of hardheaded realism. It is actually a vision of a world of cutthroat competition and zero-sum outcomes deeply at odds with the more cooperative, rules-based vision that has motivated America and its allies since World War II. Under the old model, the world looked to America to set the tone and agenda. Of course there were mistakes and misadventures, but on the whole American leadership and engagement were undeniably good for this country and, more often than not, a force for global peace and security.
Determined to prevent another devastating war, the United States led the way in establishing institutions, rules and norms that would encourage countries to settle their differences peacefully and work together to solve problems that were beyond the capability of any one state. Trade agreements and financial institutions were put in place to expand economic growth and bring people out of poverty. Washington also led the way in promoting human rights and democracy.
America’s commitment to those institutions and values is now in question under a president who is arrogant in his disregard of history, nuance and, most important, understanding of American leadership and what in fact makes the country secure, prosperous and “great.”
Institutions and relationships need to grow and evolve. Events happen. Priorities change. Countries, like people, can be vulnerable to new risks and unable to exploit new opportunities if they don’t pay attention. The world still hasn’t figured out how to manage China’s rise. Still, Mr. Trump and his team, embroiled in controversy over Russia and other matters, have shown no inclination, much less skill, to do the hard thinking that must precede any decision to alter America’s role in the world. And even if they did attempt such preparation, it is hard to imagine any convincing argument for abrogating or even weakening the country’s leadership responsibilities, its defense of NATO and Europe, its preference for cooperative problem-solving and its commitment to democratic values and human rights.
Is this what Americans want? If not, they had better voice their opposition loudly and clearly. Mr. Trump, abetted inexplicably by people who should know better — General McMaster, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis — is moving fast down a dangerous and uncertain road."