It feels like ancient history, but only a week ago two U.S. candidates engaged in a public spectacle that was officially billed as a “presidential debate,” yet more closely resembled a pre-adolescent tantrum. That sickening display was another blow to the image of the United States, a battering that is doing great damage to U.S. standing in the world. For many, this slide began four years ago with the election of Donald Trump and they believe that a Biden victory in next month’s ballot will stop the deterioration and allow Washington to re-establish its global leadership. Fat chance: It will take more than a ‘mere’ change of administration to prompt an enduring and meaningful shift in perceptions of the United States.
Last week’s U.S. presidential debate was engrossing — as is a car crash or a tawdry reality TV show. The rudeness, name-calling, and incoherence left most viewers either ashamed or aghast. The Yomiuri Shimbun opined that “the low-level debate speaks volumes about the deterioration of American politics.” The Guardian newspaper called it “a national humiliation,” a prominent German commentator said it was “a joke, a low point, a shame for the country,” and former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted that it “encapsulates all that has gone wrong with American politics.” Many observers, both American and foreign, used obscenities to describe the exchange. It is hard to disagree with those unprintable characterizations: Pithy and crude, they well captured the evening.
While many foreign observers bemoaned the erosion of U.S. politics and the loss of its moral authority, others sounded gleeful. Hu Xijin, editor of Global Times, the hard-line Chinese newspaper, tweeted that the debate “reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the U.S. political system.”
The televised spectacle put an exclamation point on a treacherous slide in U.S. standing. A Gallup survey of 135 countries released this summer recorded median approval of U.S. leadership at 33 percent, a 3 percentage point recovery since the start of Trump’s term in office, but still 1 percentage point lower than the previous low of 34 percent recorded in 2008 under George W. Bush.
Those findings mirror those of a Pew Research Center survey conducted this summer, which showed favorable views of the U.S. had reached their lowest point since it began polling on this topic nearly two decades ago. Among the 13 countries surveyed, a median 34 percent said that they had a favorable view of the U.S. (64 percent was unfavorable), while 16 percent expressed confidence in Trump. (In Japan, the numbers were 41 and 25 percent, respectively, the latter number the highest among all nations. Even in Japan, however, approval of the U.S. dropped 27 percentage points from 2019 to 2020.)
While Donald Trump makes an easy target for the critics, the slide in U.S. standing well predates his administration. The last two decades have been marked by arrogance and fecklessness, outsized rhetoric, de minimus followup and stern language for the world as its own problems swelled and intensified — often then spreading beyond its borders. Former President George W Bush launched two wars, distracting the U.S. from real challenges and draining his country’s resources, engaged in a muscular foreign policy that anticipated Trump’s unilateralism, and turned a blind eye to financial excesses that triggered the 2008 Global Financial Crisis. The charge sheet against Barack Obama includes being bamboozled by China, ignoring his own red line when Syria used chemical weapons against its own citizens, allowing inequality in the U.S. to reach historical proportions and failing to close the gap between his soaring rhetoric and the pedestrian reality of governing.
During the Trump administration, the U.S. has rejected international treaties, fought with allies, waged destructive trade wars, embraced a transactional approach to foreign policy that ignores basic principles that the U.S. has long championed, ignored a climate crisis that poses an existential threat and flailed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the U.S. share of global wealth steadily shrank from 51 percent in 1951 to about 15 percent now — undermining any inherent claim to superiority based on economic management and reducing U.S. leverage — it still demands that allies and partners contribute more to their alliances, and Trump insists that all countries copy his “America First” approach, as in put your own country first — yet simultaneously demands that they follow the U.S. lead.
The low trust in Trump is evident in the Pew survey — he comes in last when compared to leaders of France, Germany, Russia, China and the U.K. — and fuels a belief that a change in administration will solve the problem. Biden suggested as much when he wrote that his foreign policy agenda “will place the United States back at the head of the table” and his optimism likely reflects the rebound in favorable views of the U.S. — from 34 to 49 percent — that followed Obama’s election in 2008.
A bounce is possible, but a return to sustained prominence and respect is wishful thinking if the U.S. doesn’t take a hard look at its behavior — over the last several decades, not just the last four years. As James Goldgeier and Bruce Jentleson bluntly noted last week in Foreign Affairs, “global leadership is not a U.S. entitlement.” Shrewd observers recognize that Trump is both a symptom and a cause of the erosion of U.S. standing in the world. His foreign policy is a hot mess — transactional, inconsistent, impatient, and often incoherent. But he also represents a more common and hardening belief that the U.S. has overextended itself, committed too many resources too far away in disputes too removed from U.S. interests. Worse, those commitments deprived the U.S. of treasure and energy that is badly needed at home.
Americans want to remain engaged. The top line from the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs’ 2020 survey of public opinion and foreign policy is that “Americans remain supportive of an active U.S. role in the world, with solid majorities supporting U.S. security alliances and free trade as the best ways to maintain safety and prosperity. Most Americans also continue to believe that globalization is largely beneficial for the United States.” The U.S. public recognizes that the U.S. is stronger working with allies and partners to advance a shared view of the world and that efforts to go it alone will fail — the cascading COVID crisis is proof of that. Neither the trade war with China nor any of the other skirmishes launched in the last four years has fixed U.S. economic ills. Belligerent and bullying talk is no substitute for the hard work of diplomacy: “My way or the highway” is not the foundation for successful foreign policy.
Americans want to work with like-minded partners, sharing burdens and responsibilities. It can and should be asked — if not demand — that those partners do more but that means giving them more weight in decision-making and sharing authority as well. The U.S. has been slow to make that transition even though it is increasingly urgent.
Fortunately, there is room for a U.S. return. While the Pew survey puts U.S. approval ratings in the low 30s, China and Russia occupy that neighborhood as well. Moscow engenders fear, not respect, and Beijing’s high-profile efforts to gain international influence have come up short. There is no obvious replacement for the United States but it cannot assume that it is the rightful occupier of the apex position in international politics. Leadership must be earned.
As U.S. leadership is assessed, most attention focuses on its foreign policy. Much less discussed, yet no less important, is U.S. domestic behavior. Washington’s ability to tackle problems at home sets an example and builds the foundation for a successful foreign policy. The Atlantic Council’s Mathew Burrows and Robert Manning are right to argue that “no hegemonic power can effectively run the world while ignoring long-festering domestic schisms and calls for reform … . Only by dealing directly with the problems of the middle class … will we have a chance to rebuild our credibility and standing.” This is most basically a problem of the social contract.
In other words, reclaiming America’s place in the world is a sweeping project. It will take far more than a change of administration, but that, along with a change in tone in U.S. politics will be vital first steps.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions (Georgetown University Press, 2019).