Why you should care
Because institutions and reputations are built over lifetimes but can crumble almost overnight.
The author teaches at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and was deputy director and acting director of the CIA from 2000 to 2004. Follow him on Twitter: @mclaughlinSAIS.
Amid the many controversies roiling Washington these days, there is a troubling trend that is greater than the sum of the parts: America’s singular leadership role, held with minimal challenge since the end of World War II, is rapidly fading. A man who campaigned on the promise of making America great again now risks doing just the opposite.
The United States’ geopolitical stature is based on much more than military power — although might is one of its foundational components. One by one, the administration is allowing the other elements of leadership, reputational and institutional alike, to slip away. The United States can regain them only if the administration develops a more disciplined communication and policy process — and only if the president comes to understand that giving in to impulsive and fact-challenged anger is the opposite of “presidential.”
The power to inspire was the greatest asset of the U.S., and we fear it’s gone.
On the reputation front, America has been admired for the strength, integrity and stability of its political system — and for the values it has always projected. Now we are seen with a mixture of disillusionment and sorrow. As a European ambassador said to me recently: “The power to inspire was the greatest asset of the U.S., and we fear it’s gone.”
Why is this? It’s pretty simple, really. The world has seen even weak American presidents as embodying the values people associated with America. But the long trail of sloppy, inaccurate or false statements that culminated in President Trump’s labeling of his predecessor as a felon on March 4 signal to the world that they cannot trust what the American president says.
The issue is not academic. I assure most foreigners that we’ll muddle through somehow with domestic issues such as health care and tax reform — despite all the partisan wrangling. But I cannot assure them that the Trump administration can manage an international crisis that requires steadiness, careful coordination, resistance to foolish impulse or anger and the confidence of allies. While the new national security adviser, H. R. McMaster, is well-qualified to inject some discipline into the process, he’s got a steeper hill to climb than any of his predecessors since Watergate in 1974.
The president’s actions are not merely sowing divisions within his Republican Party; they also put serious members in an ethical quandary. It mirrors the ethical danger experienced in authoritarian societies and described by Vaclav Havel, the anticommunist dissident who became free Czechoslovakia’s first president. He said citizens and politicians under authoritarian rule had become “morally ill” because they were forced “to say one thing while thinking another.”
This is surely the dilemma serious Republicans now face, knowing their leader has spoken falsely but searching for ways to not acknowledge that. You can sense their discomfort and hear their resort to political bafflegab. Though there are exceptions — Senator John McCain and a few other truth-tellers — their situation must be challenging.
The president’s actions are not merely sowing divisions within his Republican Party; they also put serious members in an ethical quandary.
Beyond these reputational issues, administration actions are weakening the domestic and international institutions on which American leadership has rested. Driven domestically by sophomoric ideas like “deconstruction” of the “deep state,” the administration has carelessly demeaned the judiciary, the intelligence community and a free media. This hits the rest of the world as worrisome nonsense, not leadership.
Meanwhile, international alliances and institutions that both reflect and sustain American leadership in the world are shaken. To their credit, American officials such as Defense Secretary Mattis, Vice President Pence and Homeland Security Secretary Kelly told world leaders at the Munich Security Conference last month that the U.S. solidly supports its commitments. But all the corridor talk was about whether the president would say the same thing — and mean it.
For decades, American leadership has been marked by the propagation of big ideas. Institutions such as NATO, the EU, the UN, the IMF and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe were all created, inspired or supported by the U.S. The ideas behind them were bold, outward-looking and transformational. Today, we are closing off to the world through talk of walls, travel bans, withdrawal from trade agreements and a massive spending cut (almost 30 percent) proposed for our State Department — the institution most directly responsible for engaging the rest of the world.
Meanwhile, we’re letting China corner the transformational idea market with its creation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (most of our closest allies have joined), its New Silk Road linking China to Europe and the Middle East and its Comprehensive Regional Economic Partnership. The latter will fill the vacuum the administration left when it hastened to withdraw from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.
Some will ask why American leadership matters anyway. Why should America be the standard-bearer for democracy, the rule of law, etc.? After all, we’ve made our mistakes and have often fallen short of our loftiest goals. Perhaps American exceptionalism was a mere fluke of history.
The points are worth raising — and rebutting. After the second World War, the U.S. dedicated itself to leading the world away from the most violent and destructive period in modern human history, and in this it succeeded. It would be hard to overstate the magnitude of its achievement. Two things were key to its success. First, policies that muted whatever part of human nature that permitted the global holocaust of the 20th century. Second, America’s unique blending of self-interest with the pursuit of universally appealing values.
If the administration undervalues the role of American leadership, there are others who will move into the vacuum regionally and globally. Russia, China and Iran come to mind. And the world they want will not be in any way compatible with the vision that has traditionally animated the United States.