- Four years of neglect, unilateralism, and failed diplomacy have left America’s alliances in tatters. It’s time to rebuild them.
A world without U.S. leadership is no longer some vague and lamentable future possibility. We are seeing with our own eyes what such a world looks like, with the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic a prime example. In May, as the worldwide death toll surpassed a quarter of a million people, leaders from all over the world joined by videoconference to coordinate efforts to find and raise money for an effective vaccine. The summit was organized by the European Union and ended with pledges of more than $8 billion, along with commitments by world leaders to pool their efforts to find and distribute effective medications against a virus from which none of their citizens were safe. Other than its virtual nature, it was the kind of gathering we have always envisioned when we picture global cooperation to deal with a major emergency but for one striking fact: the absence of the world’s richest and most powerful country, the United States. In the midst of the kind of global crisis that would usually lead much of the world to look to Washington for leadership, the chair normally reserved for the United States was empty.
The failure of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump to build an international coalition to combat the coronavirus is in fact only the latest manifestation of a deeper and potentially lasting failure. Indeed, among all of Trump’s foreign-policy legacies, none may be more consequential than the damage he has done to America’s standing, influence, and power in the world by weakening the system of partnerships and alliances the country has created and relied on for decades.
Since the start of his presidency, Trump has abandoned multiple treaties and agreements, undermined the credibility of U.S. defense guarantees, bullied and belittled allies, and cozied up to dictators who threaten those allies and the United States. His “America First” doctrine—with its ominous echoes of the 1930s—and indifference to the rule of law at home and abroad have left allies wondering if they can count on the United States; many have started to look elsewhere for more reliable friends and partners. The result is a world in which the United States is less safe, less respected, and less able to deal with the enormous challenges it faces: climate change, pandemics, refugees, cyberattacks, election interference, nuclear proliferation, terrorism, modern technology, and the rise of China.