Commentary / World

Lessons in losing international influence

Donald Trump and Theresa May have undermined their nations' prestige and power

A country’s influence and power depends on many factors, including the size and strength of its economy, and the size and quality of its defense forces and its population. Reliable alliances count. But less tangible factors such as language and culture also matter. So does the quality of a country’s leadership and governance.

Donald Trump, instead of “making America great again” as he claims, has succeeded in undermining American influence and prestige, making him probably the worst U.S. president in history.

The investigations into contacts between his presidential campaign and Russian agencies have yet to be completed, but the old adage that there is no smoke without fire leaves suspicions that fester. Following Trump’s failure to endorse fully the U.S. commitment to NATO, these suspicions add to concerns about the extent to which America’s allies can depend on the United States in the face of Russian aggression in Ukraine and intervention in Syria.

As America’s commander in chief, the president has the power to unleash Armageddon through his control of the country’s vast nuclear arsenal. This fact makes Trump’s maverick behavior and unpredictability particularly disturbing.

U.S. constitutional processes and popular opinion constrain what he can do and he has now surrounded himself with three generals who will surely want to prevent a fit of madness. Rex Tillerson as secretary of state and Mike Pence, his vice president, who would take over if anything happened to the president, should also be restraining influences.

But the threat that North Korea will soon have the potential to launch a nuclear strike on the U.S. mainland has not receded. Trump has shown increasing irritation with China where President Xi Jinping, while clearly annoyed with the North Koreans, shows no sign of willingness to impose effective sanctions on the regime in Pyongyang. Xi does not want either American forces or a successful capitalist regime on the Chinese frontier. His eye is focused on strengthening still further his hold on the Chinese monolith and ensuring its position in the world. There are real fears that Trump may be tempted to take potentially catastrophic military action.

His withdrawal from the Paris agreement on climate change and his mercantilist trade policies have also contributed to his reputation as an isolationist who is undermining and reducing America’s world influence.

Trump’s first six months as president have done significant damage to the world interests of the U.S. With 3½ years remaining in his term, how much further harm can he do? What are the chances that he can be induced to take the mature advice of his entourage and reinvent himself?

Trump is not the only leader of a nation that claims to have a democratic system of government who has damaged his country’s prestige and influence. President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has disappointed all those who had high hopes for the country after the rainbow revolution. Many other examples can be adduced.

Theresa May, Britain’s prime minister, cannot be absolved from blame for the current fall in British prestige and influence. She has clung on to her position, or perhaps been forced by her party to continue in that role, despite the fact that the Conservative Party of which she is still the leader does not command a parliamentary majority and is dependent on the votes of a right-wing Northern Ireland Protestant party to continue in power.

Which of Britain’s postwar prime ministers has been the worst? Until recently, the almost universal choice would have been Anthony Eden because of the debacle of British intervention over the Egyptian nationalization of the Suez Canal. Now the choice is between David Cameron and May. Both can be fairly accused of sacrificing the interests of the country to those of the Conservative Party.

Cameron never attempted to explain to the British people the rationale for the European Union or stress properly the benefits that Britain obtained from membership.

He did not have to call last year’s referendum on British membership of the EU. Referendums are not a traditional part of the British democratic tradition. They have so often been tools of dictatorships. Even if he decided to do so for the sake of party unity, he could have insisted that a significant majority, for instance two-thirds, would be required before Britain exercised its right to withdraw from the EU.

The Brexiters, including May, now argue without adequate justification that the vote to leave was taken to limit immigration and free Britain from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. To achieve these aims, Brexiters argue that Britain must also leave the single market and the customs union, even if by so doing the British economy is seriously disadvantaged. Britons did not vote to leave to make themselves worse off.

The case against May is that she appointed and has presided over a government that has become a shambles. She allowed herself and her policies to be dictated by two unelected advisers. Instead of attempting to find a middle way between those who wanted to leave and those who had voted to remain, she chose to back a hard-line policy that includes leaving the customs union, even though this has serious implications for Northern Ireland and other regions of the United Kingdom. She was even prepared to advocate leaving without any deal.

May called the recent general election in the mistaken belief that she would win a greatly increased majority. Her party manifesto was poorly thought out and failed to satisfy either the party’s traditional supporters or the middle-of-the-road voters she needed to win over. Her presidential-style campaign was built on the slogan of “strong and stable leadership,” which it was not. Her sound bites, starting with “Brexit means Brexit,” and her obstinate adherence to policies such as limiting immigration to tens of thousands underline her inadequacies as a leader.

Can May reinvent herself and find a way of unifying her government and re-establishing Britain’s reputation for good government?

A career diplomat, Hugh Cortazzi served as Britain’s ambassador to Japan from 1980 to 1984.

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