I vividly recall working in the Press Office of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors as President George W. Bush marched a much maligned America to war in Iraq. Bloody protestors and police lined the lobby. The loud chants echoed through the old building in front of Westminster. It seemed like a historic low point for my country. The following year, I joined the diplomatic service, in large measure out of a desire to help mend frayed ties with the world. Donald Trump just shredded the fabric.
The President walked away. Not just from an agreement that was working well. Not only from nations that took us at our word. He walked away from a time honoured tradition of Washington playing a primary role in holding up the international order. It’s a singular position America has occupied on the world stage since the end of the Cold War. Security, economic, political stability has depended on its presence. Donald Trump knocked it down with a bulldozer.
Many will quickly shift focus to North Korea. Yet, stepping back from this decision, it is clear the consequences and challenges are far greater than nuclear diplomacy. There was widespread frustration in Asia when Trump pulled out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The decision to withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord was met with global despair. Abandoning an agreement that is keeping nuclear weapons from spreading in a volatile region is downright dangerous. Donald Trump drove right over the warning signs and backed over them again for good measure.
Even before he was done yanking the Yankees out of the Iran Deal, the president strategically threw a countermeasure into the mix. He announced Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was on his way to Pyongyang. It was his way of saying, Iran is old news, time to turn our attention to North Korea. While this may work on reality shows and Twitter, diplomacy is rooted in long memories. Indeed, President Ronald Reagan noted in a speech to the European Parliament on nuclear deals, “The United States will insist upon compliance with past agreements, both for their own sake and to strengthen confidence in the possibility of future accords.”
The damage will not be contained. Losing our credibility is just the start. More consequently, we lose control. The United States no longer enjoys exceptional leverage over international institutions. We can no longer convince countries merely on the weight of our words. We can no longer claim to lead by example. Millions may follow Donald Trump on Twitter, few leaders will follow his lead.
Other powers will fill the void. Europe, Russia, and China will try to shore up the deal. If they succeed it will show how diminished our standing has become. If they fail, it will accelerate Moscow and Beijing’s plans to dismantle the post-war world order and more aggressively assert their international influence. Today marks the end of an American era and the beginning of an era governed by uncertainty and instability. Donald Trump surrendered American exceptionalism.
Trump trumpets American strength. It’s little more than a one-man band. Power is not found in standing alone. All modern American leaders intuitively understood this reality. They always sought to frame their arguments on common ground with other nations. Reagan said in the same 1985 address in Strasbourg,
“The United States will proceed in full consultation with its allies, recognizing that our fates are intertwined and we must act in unity.” Donald Trump acted without the support of a single member of the United Nations Security Council.
This did not start with Trump. Three quarters of a century have passed since President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to the US Congress. In that time America’s message to the world has steadily shifted from freedom to fear. From Rwanda to Raqqa, we more reluctantly embraced our role in coming to the defense of universal values. Presidents increasingly defined our missions in narrower, more self-interested terms. Donald Trump embraced that trend like a viral hashtag.
What happens now? We will continue to act like a nation that still believes it commands great international influence. Democrats will tell voters that electing them can restore our global leadership. The hard truth is that once gone, it’s not easily restored. We filled in some of the holes punctured through the damn during the second Bush presidency. Yet, he never challenged the core traditions of American power. I believe that Donald Trump has damaged it beyond repair.
Brett Bruen was Director of Global Engagement in the Obama White House and a US diplomat for twelve years. He runs the strategic communications firm Global Situation Room, sits on the board of the Global Engagement Initiative at Harvard, and teaches crisis management at Georgetown University.