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Status and Responsibility: The Decline of American International Prestige in the Trump Era

In 50 years, how will we view the Trump presidency? Will it be through the lens of a decline in civilized political discourse, a rise in pure partisanship, or maybe the judicial appointments leaving a lasting impact on our political landscape? While these changes will undoubtedly be a part of the historical Trump narrative, his administration’s abandonment of strong foreign policy and diplomacy on the global scale will be the most notable mark of Trump’s time in the White House. Whether it be through gutting the State Department, abandoning the Kurds, or failing to exercise American influence in international institutions, the Trump Doctrine of foreign policy has shown itself to be a sheer lack of any concrete policy. 

Throughout his presidency, Trump has called out other nations through international institutions like the UN and NATO, berating member countries to “pay their fair share” while failing to recognize the inherent value these institutions have in maintaining stability across the world. He has skirted traditional notions of diplomacy with his bombastic style and has often isolated the United States when it should have taken a lead on the world stage. In the absence of the United States, China has risen to be a central force in world politics, exercising its domain across Asia and Europe through commercial and political partnerships. Thus, the declining role of the United States in the international realm is doing a disservice to global stability as a whole.

In October 2019, President Trump approved the withdrawal of a thousand US Special Forces soldiers from Syria who had been aiding the US’s Kurdish partners in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The SDF fully eliminated the Islamic State’s caliphate after five years of nonstop warfare. Trump, in one move, however, abandoned these strategic allies and left them out to dry. This move was condemned domestically from veterans as well as politicians on both sides of the aisle in Congress. The Kurds are the largest stateless ethnic group in the world and, in the absence of the United States, they have turned to Bashar al-Assad and the Syrian government for protection against Turkey. This shift represents a strategic loss of regional control for the United States, but this event is not an outlier. Trump consistently avoids or voids the partnerships that are paramount to maintaining a competitive edge over our geopolitical rivals. Allies need to be respected, especially when our shared goals and ideology dominate the strategic partnership. Moves like this one set a dangerous precedent on the global scale and show the world that the United States cannot be held to its commitments.

Beyond the military commitments that Trump has ignored, his neglect of the art of diplomacy and the power of an efficient State Department attest to the increasingly isolationist position and declining clout of the United States in the international arena. The current administration has embarked on “unilateral diplomatic disarmament” in a time when US leadership is needed more than ever. The United States should use its power to reshape the international landscape in its image by peddling powerful diplomatic ties across the world to contest the rise of China. The opposite, however, has occurred. The “America First” message that Trump touted on the campaign trail created an atmosphere of unilateralism and populism that has greatly diminished the role of the United States across the globe. At the beginning of President Trump’s first term, he withdrew the United States from the Paris climate accord, the Iran nuclear deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and countless other landmark international agreements. In Washington, he cut the State Department’s budget by ⅓ and reduced the Foreign Service to minuscule levels. Essential positions and ambassadorships within the department still remain unfilled to this day. Additionally, Trump has blacklisted officers who worked on controversial issues like the Iran deal during the Obama administration. These trends showcase a lack of concern for the perception and power of the United States abroad. The United States is not only a strategic partner for nations across the globe but represents something more: a symbol of democratic ideals. The narrative of the democratic United States and the influence of American ideals cannot be overstated. By pulling back its agreements, military commitments, and overall diplomacy, the Trump administration is destroying the American narrative globally and limiting the scope of true world cooperation.

In the absence of a hegemonic United States, China has been able to expand its diplomatic and economic network to all corners of the world and exert unprecedented influence. As of 2019, China has the largest diplomatic network in the world. Beijing is not afraid to employ its global prestige, while the United States turns inward. Beyond the diplomatic realm, China is driving the global economy through large-scale investment projects in foreign business and Xi Jinping’s hallmark Belt and Road Initiative. In particular, the Belt and Road Initiative has profoundly changed China’s position within the global landscape. This project, started in 2013, calls for “development and investment initiatives” from East Asia to Europe through a “vast network of railways, energy pipelines, highways, and streamlined border crossings, both westward—through the mountainous former Soviet republics—and southward, to Pakistan, India, and the rest of Southeast Asia.” The $1 trillion project is inextricably linking China to countless nations and regions that are desperate for safe and secure infrastructure, something the Chinese are happy to provide. As President Xi has asserted China’s dominance in economic and diplomatic relations across the globe, President Trump has created an unnecessary and reckless trade war with China that is disproportionately hurting American consumers and producers. In 2020, Trump’s tariffs on $360 billion worth of Chinese goods are projected to cost the average American household between $500 and $1700. Thus, while China is taking a proactive approach to its foreign policy, diplomacy, and its role on the global stage, Trump is isolating the United States and hurting ordinary Americans economically. The unipolar vision of the world for the United States no longer applies as Trump continues to let American influence fall and Chinese influence rise.

American hegemony across the globe is crumbling. Unfortunately, the United States’ diplomacy and global cooperation efforts will continue on their lackluster trajectory unless an altered international strategy is implemented with a new administration. Trump and his administration fail to recognize the inherent value of strong international partnerships and relationships within an associative atmosphere. Bodies like the United Nations and NATO contribute inherent value and stability to the global community. By consistently shunning and rejecting these organizations, Trump is isolating the United States from its role as a global superpower. Trump himself has stated, “The world is most peaceful, and most prosperous when America is strongest. America will continually play the role of peacemaker.” If Trump truly believes this sentiment, why has he allowed American diplomacy and global relationships to falter across the globe? America must exert its influence and act as a stabilizing force both in international institutions and in turbulent regions. We do ourselves a continuous disservice by allowing powers like China to assert themselves as true global superpowers. It is essential for world stability that the United States takes a leading role in international discourse, or we will look back in dismay at the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate the United States and break up essential aspects of global cooperation.

Photo: Image via Flickr (Jared Rodriguez)