By Joseph S. Nye
CAMBRIDGE – Friends and allies have come to distrust the United States. Trust is closely linked to truth, and President Donald Trump is notorious for being free with the truth. Every president has lied, but never on such a scale as to ruin the currency of trust. International opinion polls show that America’s soft power of attraction has suddenly declined over the Trump presidency.
Can President-elect Joe Biden restore that trust? In the short term, yes. Changing style and policy will improve America’s status in most countries. Trump was a stranger among U.S. presidents. The presidency was his first job in government, having spent his career in the zero sum of New York City real estate and reality TV, where scandalous statements capture media attention and help you control the agenda.
Biden, by contrast, is a well-vetted politician with long experience in foreign policy spanning decades in Parliament and eight years as vice president. Since the election, his initial statements and appointments have had a particularly encouraging impact on allies.
Trump’s problem with allies was not his slogan “America First.” As I argued in Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump, presidents are entrusted with promoting the national interest. The important moral issue is how a president defines the national interest.
Trump chose narrow transaction definitions and, according to his former national security adviser, John Bolton, sometimes confused the national interest with his own personal, political and financial interests. In contrast, many US presidents since Harry Truman have often taken a broad view of the national interest and did not confuse it with their own. Truman saw that helping others was in the American national interest, and even left his name on the Marshall Plan for aid in post-war reconstruction in Europe.
In contrast, Trump had a contempt for alliances and multilateralism, which he readily demonstrated at the G7 or NATO meetings. Even when it took useful steps in standing up to aggressive Chinese trade practices, it failed to coordinate pressure on China, instead raising tariffs on US allies. Small wonder that many are wondering whether America’s (very) opposition to the Chinese tech giant Huawei was motivated by commercial concerns rather than security.
And Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization sowed mistrust over America’s commitment to dealing with transnational global threats such as global warming and pandemics. Biden’s plan to rejoin the two, and his assurances about NATO, will have an immediate beneficial effect on US soft power.
But Biden will still face a deeper trust problem. Many allies ask what is happening to American democracy. How can a country that produced a political leader as arrogant as Trump in 2016 be trusted not to produce another country in 2024 or 2028? Is American democracy in decline, making the country unreliable?
The declining trust in government and other institutions that prompted Trump’s rise with him did not begin. Low trust in government has been the madness of the United States for half a century. After success in World War II, three-quarters of Americans said they had high trust in government. This proportion fell to about a quarter after the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal in the 1960s and 1970s. Fortunately, citizens’ behavior on issues such as tax compliance was often much better than their responses to pollsters might suggest.
Perhaps the best demonstration of the underlying strength and resilience of American democratic culture was the 2020 election. Despite the worst pandemic in a century and dire predictions of chaotic voting conditions, record turnout came, with thousands of local officials – Republicans, Democrats, and independents – who administered the election considered honestly carrying out their tasks as a civic duty.
In Georgia, which narrowly lost Trump, the Republican secretary of state, who was responsible for overseeing the election, challenged unfounded criticism from Trump and other Republicans, declaring, “I live by the motto the numbers don’t lie. ” Trump’s lawsuits alleging massive fraud, with no evidence to back it up, were thrown out in court after court, including by the judges Trump had appointed. And Republicans in Michigan and Pennsylvania opposed his efforts to get state legislators to reverse election results. Unlike the left’s predictions of doom and the right’s predictions of fraud, American democracy proved its strength and deep local roots.
But Americans, including Biden, will still face allies’ concerns about whether they can be trusted not to elect another Trump in 2024 or 2028. They cite the polarization of political parties, Trump’s refusal to accept defeat, and the rejection of a congressional Republican . leaders to condemn his behavior or even explicitly acknowledge Biden’s victory.
Trump has used his grassroots supporter base to gain control of the Republican Party by threatening to support fundamental challenges for non-aligned moderates. Journalists report that about half of Republicans in the Senate respect Trump, but they also fear him. If Trump tries to retain control of the party after he leaves the White House, Biden will face a difficult task working with a Republican-controlled Senate.
Fortunately for US allies, while Biden’s political skills are tested, the US Constitution provides more freedom for a foreign president than in domestic policy, so the short-term improvements in cooperation will be real. Moreover, unlike 2016, when Trump was elected, a recent opinion poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs shows that 70% of Americans want an outside-oriented cooperative foreign policy – a record number.
But the longstanding question of whether allies can trust America not to produce another Trump with complete certainty cannot be answered. Much will depend on pandemic management, economic recovery, and Biden’s political skill in managing the country’s political polarization.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2020.