A year into 'America First,' the world eyes US – and Trump – with less trust

President Trump's mistrust and rejection of international agreements and institutions have transformed America's status. And the lack of global leadership shown in the first year of his administration may have a lasting effect.

Kim Hong-Ji/AP
President Trump walked with South Korean President Moon Jae-in during a welcoming ceremony at the Presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea, Nov. 7.

One year ago this weekend, Donald Trump used his inaugural presidential speech to issue what he called "a new decree to be heard in every city, in every foreign capital and in every hall of power."

"From this day forward, it’s going to be only America First," he declared. "America First."

The world winced and waited with bated breath. What would this blunt assertion of US self-interest mean?

Twelve months on, some of the biggest shoes have yet to drop. The president has not launched the trade war with China that he had threatened, for example. Nor has he retreated into isolationism; there are more US troops in Afghanistan now than a year ago, and Mr. Trump has kept up the fight against the so-called Islamic State (ISIS).

But his mistrust and rejection of international agreements and institutions, from NATO to multilateral trade deals, from an accord to limit greenhouse gas emissions to a pact to check Iran’s nuclear program, has transformed America’s status. Historically a global leader, Washington today is an outlier on many key issues. And only 22 percent of the foreign public trusts the US president to do the right thing in international affairs, the Pew Research Center has found.

“Donald Trump is eroding institutions, trust, and alliances,” says Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm in New York. “The US role in the world will be dramatically lessened, and some of that will never come back.”

And with no other player strong enough to step up to America’s traditional responsibility for overseeing the international order, nation states large and small may be tempted to follow Washington’s example and pursue their own narrow interests, regardless of the costs to others.

That could be dangerous. “Competing individual national security policies do not create international security,” worries Manuel Lafont Rapnouil, who runs the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Business as usual?

In many parts of the world, the daily practice of US foreign policy has changed little over the past year. In East Asia, Washington’s alliances with Japan and South Korea are still strong. The US still seems intent on maintaining its hegemony in the Pacific – drawing India and Australia into its strategy to contain China. And though Trump pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – the regional trade deal that was the economic pillar for that strategy – US trade with Asia-Pacific countries is still vigorous.

“America cannot just withdraw from the region,” says Chen Dingding, a professor of international relations at Jinan University in Guangzhou, China. “Leaving the TPP is not a once-and-for-all cut-off.”

On North Korea, while Trump indulged in noisy, provocative tweets about “rocket man” Kim Jong-un and the size of his nuclear button, Washington followed the orthodox diplomatic playbook. The US went to the United Nations, won approval for stiffer sanctions, and leaned on Beijing to influence its ally, just as previous administrations have done.

In Africa, the US has little clear policy beyond stepping up the Obama administration’s moves to increase Washington’s engagement in counter-terrorism operations in Mali and the Sahel region. In Syria, Trump has maintained Obama’s policy of fighting ISIS, but not on the ground. In Afghanistan, he has boosted US troop numbers.

And the new US national security and national defense strategies merely sharpen the previous administration’s view of China and Russia as strategic rivals whose threats need to be countered.

Angry allies

Trump has also seemed to be at odds with America’s longest standing allies on many issues – including the Paris climate accord, from which he announced the US would withdraw unless the treaty was modified to suit his taste; the Iran nuclear program deal, on which he has threatened to renege in the teeth of opposition from every other signatory; and moving the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, a policy rejected by almost every other country in the world.

On none of these controversial issues has the US president sought to build a supportive international coalition, or even an understanding with his partners. His “take it or leave it” style displays few traditional elements of leadership, critics complain.

To the dismay of his European allies. “Europe does not want to have to fight the US,” says Mr. Lafont Rapnouil. “But it is clear that they will have to defend some of their policies against US policies. ‘America First’ sometimes means ‘America alone.’”

Trump’s lack of appetite for global leadership, some say, has left the field open to US rivals. “The president’s single biggest impact on the world is the extraordinary opportunity he has given China to gain economic influence” in the world, says Mr. Bremmer. “The US has been losing credibility for some time; Trump has taken that and run with it.”

Washington's shrinking role in the world and Trump's tolerance for autocrats has been welcome to others besides China; Saudi Arabia has enjoyed largely free rein to wage a brutal war in neighboring Yemen, for example, and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte won the US president's blessing for a deadly extra-judicial campaign against alleged drug dealers.

Indispensable no more?

In the long term, this trend could have far reaching implications, suggests Xenia Wickett, head of the US and Americas program at Chatham House, a London-based think tank. The growing complexity of world affairs – and former President Barack Obama’s policy of “leading from behind” – as one of his officials put it, meant that “America was a necessary but not a sufficient actor” in world affairs, says Ms. Wickett.

“By the end of Donald Trump’s presidency, America may end up not being a necessary partner either, as other countries step up,” she predicts.

This trend has undercut not only US standing in the world, but Western soft power generally, Wickett adds. “Trump’s pursuit of American interests to the exclusion of others’ interests has had a long-term impact on those who had looked to the West as something to emulate.”

His "shoot from the lip" style has also shocked foreign publics. “Overall global opinion of Mr. Trump is pretty negative,” says Richard Wike, who has surveyed that opinion for the Pew Research Center. “People don’t like it when the US pulls back from international agreements and engagement, putting up barriers between itself and others,” he explains; such behavior does not seem to reflect American values.

Nor does Trump’s “insatiable desire to embrace strongmen who get things done without the checks and balances of democracy” such as Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte, says Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch.

His warm words for such authoritarian leaders “undermines the human rights movement’s efforts to stigmatize these people,” worries Mr. Roth. “Our success depends on shaming them.”

Rough waters - but navigable

Trump’s attitude to human rights would be easily reversible by America’s next president, Roth says. Other current administration policies might also be changed. And citizens around the world understand that Donald Trump is not the United States.

“The trust deficit is not with America, it’s with President Trump,” says Wickett, and previous presidential handovers have worked wonders for America’s international image. Only 42 percent of respondents had a positive view of the United States when Pew did its last global survey of the George W. Bush presidency; that figure had jumped to 59 percent by the time it carried out its first survey of the Obama era.

US allies “have got rough waters ahead for the next few years,” says Wickett. “We’ll find it very, very difficult to make progress together. But the fundamentals of the transatlantic relationship are very strong; it is not breaking down.”

That relationship will survive, she says. “And what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

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