In spite of Donald Trump, the desire for US leadership on the international stage remains strong

It will take more than the actions of one man for the people of the world to lose faith in American values

U.S. President Donald Trump leaves after a United Nations Security Council briefing in New York, U.S., on Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2018. Trump said that China is attempting to interfere in the 2018 midterm congressional elections and alleged Beijing seeks to help his opponents. Photographer: Jeenah Moon/Bloomberg
Powered by automated translation

Remember when we were promised that “the day of the dictator” was over? It was the early 1990s and President George HW Bush was in the White House. The Soviet Union had collapsed, the Cold War was over, and Germany was going through the process of reunification.

Elsewhere, Spain, Greece and Portugal had abandoned their authoritarian pasts and become fully fledged European Union democracies. In Latin America, formerly authoritarian regimes had also embraced democratic values.

By 1991, President Bush’s aides proudly boasted of a “unipolar world” with only one superpower − the United States. American capitalism had won the battle of ideas with Soviet communism. There was a “new world order”, we were told, in which international disputes would be settled without resorting to war. The writer Francis Fukuyama even suggested in a now famous essay that this victory of liberal democracy could represent the “End of History” as we knew it.

Few people − including Fukuyama himself − completely swallowed this crude triumphalism. But when I lived in Washington throughout the 1990s, it was certainly a time of unchallenged American power and influence. In culture, business and many sports, the US ruled. Its armed forces were so strong they more than balanced those of the next dozen military nations put together.

America was not always loved, but it was widely respected and sometimes feared. In those days, there was never any question that its president was “the most powerful man in the world”.

Now, the idea of American leadership has all but evaporated, but the desire for it remains strong in nations across the globe. This extraordinary phenomenon can be explained in two words: Donald Trump.

Around the world US leadership can survive if the president is disliked, even loathed. It cannot survive if the president is not trusted or respected. That loss of trust is striking. The authoritative Pew Research Center has conducted an enormous opinion survey of more than 26,000 respondents in 25 countries. When asked to rate their confidence in world leaders, Mr Trump polled last, behind the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the French President Emmanuel Macron and even Russia's Vladimir Putin.

The survey’s respondents cited “widespread opposition” to the Trump administration’s policies and “a widely shared lack of confidence in his leadership”. They saw “American soft power waning” and fewer of them believed in the core values that Mr Trump stands for, claiming that the US no longer respects individual liberty as it did a decade ago.

There is no precedent for the democratically elected "leader of the free world" being less trusted than a former KGB colonel who has ruled Russia by sheer force of will for almost 20 years. Russia, for all Mr Putin's bluster, has a turbulent and underperforming economy, a much weaker military than the US and a terrible reputation for incompetent meddling in other countries' affairs, from the Baltics and Ukraine to the UK and Syria. And yet, Mr Putin still inspires more confidence worldwide than Mr Trump.

The good news for Americans is that even if only 27 per cent of those polled think well of its current leader, 50 per cent have a favourable view of the United States itself. Two-thirds of respondents want America to retain its role as the world’s most powerful nation, a feeling especially strong among neighbours of Russia and China.

However, huge majorities worldwide believe that, under Mr Trump, the US does far too little to address global problems and no longer considers the interests of its allies. The survey rates the UK and France as declining powers and American influence as stagnant. Tellingly, 70 per cent of respondents believe that the rising world power is China.

Taken as a whole, the Pew survey reveals that America has gone from being an indispensable ally to an unreliable one. Mr Trump, typically, may not care. He recently told the United Nations: “We reject the ideology of globalism and we embrace the doctrine of patriotism.” He withdrew from the Paris climate-change accords, frequently attacks international institutions including Nato, the UN and the EU, and sees nationalistic solutions to international problems. “America First” is both a slogan and a policy.

Two years after Mr Trump’s election in November 2016, real damage has been done. In Mexico, he has the lowest ratings recorded by Pew, with just 6 per cent of people having any confidence in him. Hardly surprising, then, that China is quietly making inroads in Uncle Sam’s back yard.

The Argentinian government has allowed China to set up a space-monitoring base in Patagonia. China is also developing significant relationships with Brazil and Chile. In the UK, The Times reported recently that Bolivia is buying Chinese aircraft and that Argentina and Peru have signed smaller deals. Jamaica, the Bahamas and Panama are also key focuses of Chinese businesses.

While Mr Trump’s presidency is bizarrely unpredictable and apparently dependent on his latest tweet, China’s great strength is predictability. In Peru a few years ago, a leading politician told me that doing business with China was easy because Beijing strikes a bargain and then delivers − whereas Washington’s deals often have strings attached.

It would be unwise to predict the eclipse of American power, just because one president has destroyed his country’s reputation. However, the truth is that nations hoping for help from a powerful ally may have to look elsewhere until Mr Trump leaves office, which could be any time in the next two to six years.

American presidents speak from what has been called the “bully pulpit”, able to weigh in with strength and authority on any issue. The ideas of Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton changed the world. Mr Trump’s ideas, his suspicion of international co-operation and his shameless attitude towards the truth have also inspired others around the world, but not in any positive way. From Sweden to the Philippines, the UK to Brazil, right-wing nationalists and populists feel this is their moment.

The legacy of Mr Trump therefore may be twofold: a continuing decline in confidence in American leadership and a rise in the politics of reactionary bluster.

In May 2014 – two years before Mr Trump took office – Foreign Policy magazine published a piece titled "Sorry, America, the New World Order is Dead". Vladimir Putin was named as one of the assassins. So far, so prescient. However, the writer still held out some hope for stability and pragmatism, asserting that "the United States, Europe, Japan, and China are the four great trading blocs, and they co-operate with each other because they know that if anyone reverts to protectionism, others will retaliate".

Now, however, even these dependable and mutually beneficial relationships have been torn apart, thanks to a bitter trade war between the United States and China. In pursuing this strategy, Mr Trump has created what we might call a new world disorder. Amid this chaos, it is clear that history not at an end, the day of the dictator is not over and that global American leadership, though much desired by many, is nowhere to be found.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, author and television presenter