by Renee M. Earle
A few weeks ago, on July 4, we Americans celebrated our country and its freedoms, and we clearly have much to be grateful for – and also much to ponder. Seen both from within the U.S. and from much of the rest of the world, early Massachusetts Colonialist John Winthrop’s idealized “city on the hill” where “the eyes of the people will be upon us,” no longer looks as bright, and this should worry us.
Much has been written to lament America’s retreat from the world stage during the current administration, which has been driven apparently by the mistaken notion that the U.S. can escape what affects the rest of the world simply by opting out or by saber rattling to get its way. But the longer the U.S. continues down this path, the question changes from whether the U.S. will want to reassume its 20th century role to whether the rest of the world will be willing to welcome back the America it perceives today. To watchers around the globe the America that led the world to increases in stability, prosperity, democracy, and human rights has disappeared in the trashing of international treaties and trade agreements, riots against racial discrimination, police violence, and our inability to deal effectively with the corona virus pandemic.
The reactions are many and global. In a sampling of opinion even from countries that traditionally have been America’s closest friends and allies, one of the most scathing appraisals comes from the Irish Times in April. Fintan O’Toole opines: “Over more than two centuries, the United States has stirred a very wide range of feelings in the rest of the world: love and hatred, fear and hope, envy and contempt, awe and anger. But there is one emotion that has never been directed towards the US until now: pity.” Focused on U.S. handling of Covid 19, O’Toole continues: “If the plague is a test, its ruling political nexus ensured that the US would fail it at a terrible cost in human lives. In the process, the idea of the US as the world’s leading nation – an idea that has shaped the past century – has all but evaporated…”
In parallel with continuing disbelief at the botched U.S. handling of the corona virus, the world stood aghast at the images of George Floyd being held on the ground as he choked to death. Long-time U.S. observer Guy Sorman titles his op-ed in France’s Le Monde, ‘The United States is Now on the Edge of Self-Destruction.” “The American Dream is weakened by a series of fractures,” says Sorman, “of which racial discrimination is the most flagrant, with intersecting inequality in income, health care, and education.”
In an embarrassing first for the U.S., in June, the 54 nations of the African continent called on the United Nations Human Rights Council (from which the U.S. withdrew in 2018) to investigate “systemic racism, police brutality, and violence against peaceful protests” in the U.S. While the resulting U.N. resolution ordered a report on systemic racism against people of African descent, thanks to several Western nations, the final resolution omitted specific mention of the U.S.
Another long-time USA watcher in Le Monde offers similar observations. Alain Frachon recounts an exchange, reported in the Financial Times, between a State Department spokesperson and a Chinese Foreign Ministry employee in Beijing who responded to U.S. criticism of Chinese restrictions in Hong Kong with this tweet: “I can’t breathe.” Frachon observes: “The ability of a country to defend its interests and to promote its values abroad depends also on its domestic situation. This is how it is, image reigns supreme. It will weigh on the ability of the United States to personify democracy and denounce autocracy in other nations.” He concludes that “in the current situation, Russia and China only stand to gain…”
It should be noted that most authors also acknowledge that racism and mishandling of the virus have not escaped their own countries; however, it is also clear that they expected more for the United States. Criticism in fact is often disappointment.
With respect to international relations, German observer Andreas Kluth for internationally syndicated Bloomberg Opinion, on the latest Administration threat to withdraw troops from Germany, writes the following: “The tragedy for the world is that, without the US as its guarantor, the wider ‘West’ is ceasing to exist as an idea, leading to global instability and anxiety, or ‘Westlessness.’ This West — admittedly a slippery notion — represented a community of nations that saw liberal values as worth defending in a pinch, especially against authoritarianism. Germans are certainly among those doubting whether Trump’s America is, in that sense, Western…Let’s hope the Americans stay in Germany, and that Europeans reciprocate by doing their part in military defense. Otherwise, it’ll be the cynics celebrating, from Germany’s anti-American Left to the autocrats in Moscow, Beijing and elsewhere.”
As another indicator of Transatlantic drift if not outright rift, Le Monde commentator Sylvie Kauffmann discusses the 2018 NATO summit in Brussels. “The summit was particularly stormy,” writes Kauffmann, “and the Europeans were traumatized by the aggressiveness of their American ‘big brother.’” “This is just one episode,” continues Kauffmann, “but the accumulation of these moments full of tension, threats and sanctions, which at the moment characterize the foreign affairs of the United States, and the weakening of its diplomatic arm have profoundly demoralized experts on the U.S…The idea that one could form a ‘bloc’ with the U.S. seems fanciful today.”
While U.S. opposition to the International Criminal Court is not new, an article in another French newspaper, Liberation, puts the latest White House executive order on the ICC into a broader context however, that of “an American attack on international law and multilateralism. But nothing is proposed as an alternative and this speaks volumes about the U.S. loss of global leadership.”
Heading South – Global Rankings Raise Concern
Previous U.S. administrations also debated the benefits to the U.S. of isolation versus global engagement, but these reactions indicate that this time returning to its former leadership role may be more difficult for the United States. To assess the scale of the challenge, especially if current trends continue, it is useful to look at recent Gallup and Pew Research Center polls of international opinion.
Gallup’s findings from its 2019 survey of opinion of global leadership are disturbing.[i] The report’s introduction states: “The global approval rating of U.S. leadership sits at its lowest level for any of the past three U.S. administrations. This low rating could have implications for U.S. “soft power” — getting people to go along with policies because they want to — and billions in U.S. trade.” Gallup answers its own question of whether we should care with an emphatic “yes.” Showing a near-tie in global leadership for the U.S. and Russia, and with China even overtaking the U.S. at 34% over 31%, Gallup, as others have done, expresses the concerns that, in addition to the low U.S. rating itself, the ratings may indicate a new avenue for global influence by China and Russia.
Published in January of 2020, the latest Pew report of global trends conducted in 33 countries[ii] shows negative views of the Trump administration, but, perhaps surprisingly, still relatively high opinion of the United States, albeit lower than under previous administrations and prior to the latest U.S. horror-inducing events reported across the globe.
The survey, conducted in spring and summer 2019, finds that lack of confidence in the 45th U.S. president when it comes to world affairs is especially strong in Western Europe. The report indicates that the lack of confidence is driven in part by opposition to his policies. A median of 68% across the nations polled say they disapprove of the U.S. increasing tariffs on imported goods; a median of 66% oppose the Trump administration’s withdrawal from international climate agreements; and 60% disapprove of the proposal to build a wall on the border with Mexico. In Turkey, only one-fifth say they have a favorable opinion of the U.S., the “lowest percentage registered in the survey.”
While overall attitudes toward the U.S. are lower than during the Obama administration among key EU allies, the Pew report also finds that in some countries there is an uptick in ratings for both the U.S and President Trump since their 2018 poll. Before there is celebration however, one should note that this is largely due to support for some of the Trump administration’s policies from the political right in countries surveyed and in only a few countries. Even among respondents on the right, a higher than 50% approval for President Trump is seen in only six of the 33 nations.
There are indicators that it will also be increasingly difficult for the U.S. to advocate for freedom of the press abroad. Reporters without Borders in their Press Freedom Index now ranks the U.S. as 45th on its list, which places the U.S. in the “problematic” category of places to work for journalists. Alarmed by the recent barring of Voice of American (VOA) journalists from Center for Disease Control briefings, Freedom House in a statement warned: “…Restrictions on VOA at home will be noted by illiberal leaders abroad, who may follow the example of the United States and crack down on VOA or other independent outlets in their countries, limiting access to essential information including about the COVID-19 pandemic. The United States should be an exemplar, not a detractor, of press freedom around the world.”
The Guardian in the UK agrees: “From repression in the Soviet Union to the brutal suppression of protests in the Middle East during the Arab spring, the US has helped lead principled international responses to countries that violently oppress their citizens… Today, in a truly sad state of affairs, dictatorships around the world – systems built on the repression of their own citizens – are able to give their propagandists a break from fabricating stories about America because they can just post pictures and videos of current events. While there is no legitimate comparison between these dictatorships and what is happening in America today, the US’s actions undercut its ability to stand up for what’s right abroad. “
Is the Slide Irreversible?
The U.S. voice has clearly been diminished. Before it is silenced, to reverse this trend, the U.S. and its Foreign Affairs professionals will have their work cut out for them, not least the Public Diplomacy officers whose job it will be to communicate persuasive information about renewed U.S. global engagement, when and if it comes.
Some observers remain more optimistic, expressing hope for a turnaround. The U.S. has done it before. In the lead-up and aftermath to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, global reaction, especially among European allies, largely condemned what it saw as an unwise and ill-prepared action. Revelations of torture in interrogation techniques only tarnished the U.S. image further. Nevertheless, the U.S., under a new administration, managed to rebuild credibility and trust in its dealings with other nations. This time, however, like the in-flight instructions about oxygen masks, the U.S. will also have to get its own house in order before it will be in a position to help, much less lead, other nations again.
Renee M.Earle is a retired Public Diplomacy Foreign Service Officer with the rank of Minister-Counselor. She served at embassies in Turkey, USSR/Russia, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, France, and the U.S. Mission to the European Union in Brussels. Domestic positions with the Department of State included Diplomat-in-Residence at Duke University in North Carolina, Acting Office Director of Public Diplomacy in the European Bureau, and Chief of the Central Asia Division of the Voice of America, where she directed the Pashto, Dari, Farsi, Uzbek, Azeri, and Turkish language services.