While Americans watch their president’s closest advisers become convicted felons, the rest of the world is witnessing the most profound shift in American foreign policy since the end of World War II. Until President Trump, Washington’s global strategy primarily rested on two pillars: supporting strong multilateral systems and championing democracy.
With a surprising degree of consistency, this was true from Truman through to Obama. While Republican and Democratic administrations may have argued loudly about implementation, they agreed on the greater goals.
As a result, Washington was the primary driver behind the creation of the United Nations; it’s not a coincidence the General Assembly resides in New York. The United States also pushed for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the World Trade Organization, and the G-7. Arguably, the entire global multilateral system was designed to safeguard America’s strategic interests, which is why the Soviet Union and China were traditionally so uncooperative in those venues, if they were members at all.
Likewise, for the last 70 years the biggest military, diplomatic, and economic supporter of democracy has been the United States. From the Marshall Plan to Afghanistan, Washington has distributed billions to promote democracy. Through such channels as the US Agency for International Development or international financial institutions like the World Bank, it has extended American influence around the globe. It has fought dozens of wars to contain the influence of authoritarian regimes and has championed free votes and human rights in every international forum it attends.
In this context, President Trump’s repudiation of these institutions, his attacks on former allies, and his cooperative approach toward countries like Saudi Arabia and Russia mark a stunning deviation from traditional American foreign policy.
When Trump’s international strategy is discussed by policy experts, there is an unspoken assumption that these decisions are a temporary departure — implying that either he will revert back to the norm (once he has won his NAFTA concessions or after NATO allies have increased their defense spending, for example) or his successor, of whichever party, will. And once the United States has returned, marching baton in hand, to the front of the free-world parade, everything will revert back to its natural state.
But the view from outside of the United States, from the perspective of traditional allies and rivals, is very different. From Ottawa to Beijing, policymakers are more likely to believe Washington will never lead again.
This is not because the international community (friend or foe) believes America to be in a state of decline. Although its GDP may soon be surpassed by China’s, everyone still expects the United States to remain an economic, cultural, and technological powerhouse well into the future.
It’s just that, for rival powers like Beijing and Moscow, Washington’s global retreat presents a real opportunity. The relative power they are gaining from American absence within their spheres of influence (such as in Crimea or the South China Sea) will never be relinquished.
And as China, in particular, ironically becomes an increasingly influential champion of a rules-based international trading system and of the need to fight climate change, it will continue to cultivate and expand that new global influence regardless of who occupies the White House.
Our allies, for their part, share a conviction that they can no longer afford to place their collective and national interests in the American basket. Until 2016, the political system of the United States, with its gerrymandering, hanging chads, and super PACs, was seen by foreigners as unique and strange, but mostly harmless. Decades of history had taught the world that regardless of how they were elected, the president and members of Congress could be counted on to lead the Western coalition forward.
But these allies are now seeing that the twisted line of a congressional district, a partisan court, or dark corporate donations can actually pose existential threats to NATO, NAFTA, the Paris Agreement, and a dozen other links that keep the Western alliance together. An overreliance on the United States was a strategic error that won’t be willingly repeated.
And like China, Western countries have begun to fill the diplomatic vacuum left by the United States. Leaders such as Angela Merkel in Germany and Justin Trudeau in Canada now play a more prominent role in the alliance, and won’t quietly step back if President Trump decides he now supports the G-7, or even if he is replaced by a president who is naturally inclined to support the alliance.
For a very long time Washington could justly claim it was the leader of the free world. But when it elected a president who attacked that alliance, it lost that title.
If Trump or his successor decides to return to that role, they will find that the free world has moved on. These nations are learning how to collectively look after themselves and will be loath to trust their own futures to an erratic democracy like the United States.
Scott Gilmore is a former Canadian diplomat.