Foreign-policy players say they see something different now: a disorderly U.S. transformation from a global leader working with partners to try to shape the world to an inwardly focused superpower that defines its international role more narrowly.
A year ago, Donald Trump used his opening moments as the 45th U.S. president to set forth a radically altered vision for the superpower in the world, one he dubbed “America first.”
Supporters say he has delivered: a military defeat of the Islamic State group (ISIS), greater spending by U.S. allies on defense and a commitment to transform or abandon international agreements such as NAFTA, the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris climate accord.
But the “America first” approach has also left the United States far more isolated. The overall impact of the policy, say diplomats, politicians and analysts interviewed around the world, has been a clear retrenchment of U.S. power — and an opportunity for U.S. adversaries such as China and Russia.
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The U.S. role in the world has been diminishing for years as other countries have expanded their economies, militaries and ambitions.
Foreign-policy players, however, say they see something different now: a disorderly U.S. transformation from a global leader working with partners to try to shape the world to an inwardly focused superpower that defines its international role more narrowly. The Trump administration has emphasized counterterrorism and American economic advantage in its foreign policy, while downgrading such traditional U.S. priorities as promoting human rights, democracy and international development.
Trump’s approach has won praise from countries including Israel and Saudi Arabia but is strikingly unpopular in many nations: A Gallup survey of attitudes in 134 countries that was released Thursday showed a dramatic drop in support for U.S. leadership in the world, from a median of nearly half of people approving under President Barack Obama to fewer than a third doing so under Trump.
“What he has achieved is a remarkable weakening of America’s moral standing,” said Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Parliament’s foreign relations committee and an ally of Chancellor Angela Merkel. “ ‘America first’ has made America weaker in the world.”
The White House did not respond to a request for comment.
Across the globe, U.S. adversaries are rushing to fill the void left as Washington breaks from its closest allies on trade and other international pacts. They also seek to take advantage of the confusion caused by what allies and foes alike have called an ill-defined and sometimes chaotic U.S. foreign policy, broadcast by Trump’s tweets.
“There’s a vacuum now,” said a U.S. official who works on Middle East issues, and who, like others interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity. “And you’re going to have some try to step in.”
At a World Trade Organization meeting last month in Buenos Aires, that someone was China.
The meeting, a biennial affair, usually delivers bromides about the advantages of global commerce along with some tweaks to the system.
This time, though, U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer delivered a combative speech, accusing members of unfairly taking advantage of the group’s rules, an echo of the president’s oft-repeated denunciation of “dumb trade deals.”
Allies said they got the message: The United States was not there to find common ground.
Attendees watched as Chinese officials advocated more forcefully for free trade — and then worked the sidelines to seek deals with other nations, according to a senior European official who was at the meeting.
“You see them active everywhere,” the official said, adding that the buzz of Chinese activity was clear from the scores of meeting rooms the Chinese delegation booked.
In a statement, Lighthizer said that he was ready to make worthwhile deals but that poor agreements weaken the global trading system.
Trade is not the only area in which China has seen opportunity. The emerging superpower also has benefited from acrimony in recent weeks between the U.S. and Pakistan, a nuclear-armed nation that has long had a tense partnership with the United States.
As Trump tweeted about the “lies and deceit” of the Pakistani government and his administration suspended nearly $2 billion in military aid, China gleefully stepped in to offer support. Among their actions, the Chinese have committed in recent years to a $62 billion infrastructure plan in the region.
Pakistan has taken pains to differentiate between the two powers.
“China is a strategic partner, while the ties with Washington are tactical,” said Mushahid Hussain Sayed, chairman of the defense committee in the Pakistani Senate.
Many diplomats and policymakers say they think the U.S. will remain the pre-eminent global power but with greatly dimmed ambitions — even after Trump’s tenure in the White House.
“The U.S. is not the reinsurance company for the global order. It’s no longer the guarantor of last resort,” said Reinhard Bütikofer, a German member of the European Parliament who works on transatlantic issues. “If the beacon on the hill doesn’t shine anymore, that has an impact.”
The impact can be seen in the fact that even longtime U.S. allies such as India, Turkey and Latin American nations are casting about elsewhere for dependable friends. Indian leaders have worked to deepen strategic relationships with Japan, Australia, Israel and other countries. Mexico, meanwhile, has accelerated free-trade talks with Argentina, Brazil and Europe.
Trump’s policies still win praise in some quarters. Saudi officials enthusiastically greeted him in a May visit, delighted that Trump had rejected Obama-era policies that were less hawkish toward Iran. In Israel, views of the United States have markedly improved under Trump, who has been far more supportive of the right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu than Obama.
“[Trump] has brought fresh thinking to the White House,” said Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely. “He understands the region better than those experts who warned that if he recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital or moves the embassy to Jerusalem, the Middle East will explode. It did not explode.”
David Rank, who resigned as acting U.S. ambassador to China over the administration’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate accord, said U.S. influence is ebbing. “For my entire career except for the last four days of it, the question in foreign capitals, was ‘What does Washington think about this?’ ” Rank said. “I suspect that is not the case anymore.”
This story was originally published on washingtonpost.com. Read it here.