Opinion | Richard North Patterson

The ugliest American

President Trump and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico held a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, last month.
President Trump and President Enrique Pena Nieto of Mexico held a meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 Summit in Hamburg, Germany, last month. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

Already, President Trump’s international impact is historic — indeed, unprecedented. Around the globe, particularly among our European allies, Trump is viewed as impetuous, intolerant, unqualified, and dangerous. A massive Pew study of 37 countries reveals that, remarkably, their citizens distrust America’s president more than Vladimir Putin. Trump is tarnishing America — a mere five months of Trump led to a 15 percent decline in those with a positive view of the United States.

America and the world badly need a capable and respected president. Democracies, autocracies, and stateless terrorists compete to shape our common future. That challenge requires an America which, by words and example, promotes democracy, humanitarianism, and global cooperation over intolerance, authoritarianism, and nativism. Whether the threat be nuclear, economic, or environmental, the United States cannot escape through withdrawal, or dominate through disdain.


But Trump’s disdain for diplomacy begins with his own State Department. “If you don’t fully fund [State],” Defense Secretary Mattis adjures, “then I need to buy more ammunition.” Yet Trump proposes to cut the State Department budget and foreign assistance by roughly one-third, starving America’s ability to combat the agents of global instability — pandemics, failed states, nuclear proliferation, and a massive refugee crisis that breeds terrorism.

His woefully unqualified secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, has not filled hundreds of positions essential to conducting foreign policy — including his own deputy. Instead Tillerson stumbles from one miscue to the next, avoiding the press, while Trump’s callow son-in-law and the ultra– nationalist crackpot Steve Bannon elbow him aside. In despair, gifted career diplomats jump Trump’s rudderless ship.

The result is a foreign policy as incoherent and capricious as Trump himself, linked only by the solipsism that governs his existence. He exemplifies the parody of an American abroad — the monolingual and suspicious ignoramus who shuns guidebooks, hates the food, and shouts to make the natives understand him.


Stymied by Trump’s shallowness and inattention, briefers strive to beguile him with sound bites and graphics. But instead of learning, he tweets, assaulting the world with contradictory demands, transitory proposals, ahistorical falsehoods, and juvenile bluster — alienating our allies, emboldening our adversaries, inflaming regional tinderboxes, and degrading the coin of American leadership.

Take North Korea. Trump dealt with its nuclear threat by, variously, menacing its regime with ships sailing in the opposite direction; deputizing China to solve the problem; becoming angry when China did not; complaining that South Korea was not paying its fair share of our common defense; praising the murderous Kim Jong Un as a “smart cookie”; and threatening military action which, experts agree, would decimate Seoul and, conceivably, lead to nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula. The one certainty is that Trump has no policy for dealing with an arsenal that could soon destroy Seattle.

Or consider Iran. Trump looks to abrogate the multipower agreement that is curbing Iran’s nuclear program. Conversely, he naively approves a cease-fire in Syria, which helps Russia and Iran preserve the genocidal regime of Bashar al-Assad.

In fact, the most consistent thread in Trump’s foreign policy is an amoral affinity for authoritarian and often murderous leaders. Between flip-flops, he embraces Xi Jinping of China — ignoring China’s cruelty toward the late dissident Liu Xiaobo and, more broadly, its efforts to dominate Asia through economic and military leverage. After Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey rigged an election, Trump called to congratulate him. He hails the oppressive Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt as a “fantastic guy.” And he acknowledged Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s efforts to eradicate drug trafficking through extrajudicial killings by inviting him to the White House.


Trump’s first trip abroad was to Saudi Arabia, which suppresses women and acquiesces in the export of terrorism by Saudi jihadists like the perpetrators of 9/11. Oblivious, Trump used this forum to decry terrorism by Iran, then supported the Saudis’ aggressive agenda for the Middle East, alienating Qatar — host to a key US military base — and placing our thumb on the scales of the Shiite-Sunni divide.

Later, in Poland, he praised its increasingly authoritarian leader while never mentioning democracy or human rights — offending our allies in the European Union and encouraging the regime to further repress civil liberties and free speech.

But the most dangerous of Trump’s autocratic attachments is to his tactical better, America’s odious antagonist Vladimir Putin.

Trump’s failure to punish — or even fully acknowledge — Russia’s attack on our election is a dereliction of presidential duty, confirming that his only loyalty is to self. Contemptibly, he preceded his first meeting with Putin by reasserting that no one really knows who hacked the DNC and the Hillary Clinton campaign — demeaning our intelligence agencies in the bargain.

The meeting itself — which Trump declared “an honor” — disgraced his office. First, Trump countenanced Putin’s preposterous claim to be ignorant of the blatant attack that he himself authorized. Trump topped this by discussing with Putin a joint Russian-American task force to safeguard future elections, a monument to Trump’s incompetence and gullibility so surreal that he was forced to disavow it.


Finally, he broke off from a dinner of G-20 leaders to meet alone with Putin and his Russian translator, an hour-long solo act insulting to our allies and unseemly in its secretiveness — because no record exists, Trump alone knows what was said.

Trump’s craven courtship of a reprehensible human rights violator is, in its most profound sense, un-American. Compelled to sign a veto-proof sanctions bill targeting Russia, he denounced it as unconstitutional, while conspicuously failing to protest Putin’s mass expulsion of our embassy personnel in Moscow. But Trump’s global value system — to the extent he has one — is more aligned with Putin than with his American predecessors.

Trump’s America is bereft of moral content — suspicious of our traditional democratic allies, indifferent to human rights, averse to international cooperation, contemptuous of trade agreements, and driven by a self-interest so myopic that it amounts to diplomatic paranoia. In Trump’s world, America has played the fool for supposed friends who have preyed on its naive attachment to liberal internationalism.

Trump’s ignorance merges with his pathology: By replacing international cooperation with one-on-one bargaining for advantage, he has reduced the globe to the only model he can grasp — a Hobbesian world pitting one self-seeking real estate developer against the next. Like a man who views a Rorschach test and sees a wolf’s head instead of a flower, Trump reimagines a post-World War II democratic order that promoted stability and human rights as a bad bargain in which America — despite unprecedented power and prosperity — got pantsed.


However imperfect, that world order rested on the premise that democratic values, ethnic and religious tolerance, human rights, and global trade and cooperation would ameliorate the aggressive nationalism that formerly made Europe — as but one example — a cradle for war and genocide. From this foundation came the postwar democracies of Germany, Japan, and Eastern Europe, as well as NATO, the UN, the Bretton Woods agreement and the EU. Flawed though these arrangements were, collectively they made the world more humane, prosperous, and secure.

Trump scorns them all. Critically, he views foreign trade as fueling job loss instead of growth and stability. Thus he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement covering about 40 percent of the world’s population, ceding economic primacy in Asia to China while provoking Japan to strike a new economic pact with the EU. He inveighed against our trade arrangement with South Korea, whose assistance is vital in combating the North Korean nuclear threat. He threatened a trade war over steel with the EU — which vows to retaliate.

Trump misapprehends reality: Globalization is irreversible and automation, not trade, is the principal driver of American job loss in dying industries. More fundamental, by scorning alliances, erecting trade walls, slashing humanitarian assistance, and abandoning democratic ideals, he will make America less safe in a world shadowed by nuclear arsenals and transnational terrorism.

Yet Trump careens recklessly on, offering up our allies as red meat for his base. His scornful rejection of the Paris climate accord deepened our isolation, cementing his reputation as an ill-informed and irresponsible rogue operator. Our European partners are turning away in disillusion and disgust, preferring to rely on one another rather than an America led by Trump. In a dangerous world, our president all too obviously lacks the temperament, preparation, cooperativeness, or credibility to confront the crises which await — or, worse, which he ignites through his own ignorance, impulsiveness, isolation, and ill-judgment.

The recent G-20 conference in Germany spelled out America’s precipitous loss of influence. The EU’s solidarity against Trump’s threatened trade war was but the beginning. Decisively, the other 19 members broke with Trump over the Paris Agreement, adopting their own climate plan to implement its goals. Observing this startling breach between America and its erstwhile allies, President Emmanuel Macron of France summarized Trump’s impact: “Our world has never been so divided. . . . I will not concede anything . . . [to] . . . those who are pushing against multilateralism. Otherwise we will be moving back toward narrow-minded nationalism.”

Thus does the ugliest American shrink our stature to his own.

Richard North Patterson’s column appears regularly in the Globe. His latest book is “Fever Swamp.’’ Follow him on Twitter @RicPatterson.