The annual United Nations General Assembly takes place next week. President Donald Trump had indicated he would be the only major world leader to deliver his address in person, but on Friday it was announced that he would deliver his remarks remotely.
Remote could also describe the distance many world leaders — and more profoundly, the people they lead — feel about Trump and America itself, according to a new Pew Research Center poll of citizens in 13 influential nations. In many of these countries — all allies — the image of the U.S. is at an all-time low, or matches the deep divisions between America and Europe in the run-up to the war in Iraq.
The perception of the president is even worse: Only 16% have confidence Trump would “do the right thing regarding world affairs,” a level lower than China’s Xi Jinping (19%) and Russia’s Vladimir Putin (23%), let alone Germany’s Angela Merkel (76%), France’s Emmanuel Macron (64%), and Britain’s Boris Johnson (48%).
In Europe, the numbers are better for Trump among supporters of right-wing populist parties. In Spain, for instance, there is a 38-percentage-point difference between supporters and non-supporters of the populist Vox party, and a 29-percentage-point gap between supporters and non-supporters of the far-right Alternative for Germany Party. Others see similar splits, which may drive confidence levels of the rest of the electorate even lower.
Of course, the coronavirus crisis is the main reason leaders won’t be jetting to New York next week. America’s handling of the pandemic in particular has undercut Trump’s — and the U.S.’s — image: Across the 13 countries (Canada, Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom, Australia, Japan and South Korea), only 15% said that the U.S. “has done a good job dealing with the coronavirus outbreak,” a figure even lower than China (37%), where Wuhan and Beijing officials covered up the severity and extent of the initial infections.
Other international institutions, such as the European Union (57%) and the World Health Organization (64%), fared better, as did respondents’ own countries, which averaged 74%.
So what, some might say. Sure, the data is disappointing, but is it determinative? Does international image really matter in protecting and projecting America’s interests?
Nicholas Burns, a veteran envoy who is now a professor at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Practice of Diplomacy and International Relations, offered three consequential cases in which continental relations were extraordinarily important.
“I was ambassador to NATO on 9/11, and within 24 hours of the attacks on the United States every NATO member had pledged to go to war with us, and they all did and they are in Afghanistan with us 19 years later,” said Burns (who had a harder task two years later, at a time of much lower U.S. approval in Europe, wrangling allies to join the U.S. in Iraq.)
While serving in the George H.W. Bush administration, Burns observed what presidential equity can accomplish. “Because Bush was held in such high esteem with other world leaders, because he was fundamentally honest and engaged with them, he was able to pull together a coalition of nearly 500,000 troops from 40 countries, and he convinced three countries — Japan, Germany and Saudi Arabia — to essentially pay for the entire effort, and that was the international coalition that went into Kuwait and kicked Saddam Hussein out.
“It was a textbook way of the United States leading but with a lot of help — financial, military, diplomatic — because he did things the right way.”
The perception that the U.S. is doing things the wrong way would make it harder to rally allies for a similar mission today, or in a more enduring effort against an adversary like China.
“The ability to do that is lessened if our model suddenly is being questioned,” said Tom Hanson, who is now the University of Minnesota Duluth’s diplomat-in-residence after a State Department career. “It would be hard to galvanize an ideological approach to China given the perception of the U.S. right now,” Hanson said, adding, “During the Cold War we really were seen as the model of democracy.”
Right now many overseas see the U.S. as a model of dysfunction, and that can affect how effective envoys can be. “The pandemic has been a graphic illustration of some of the problems we have here,” Hanson said. “Our polarization reveals a lack of social cohesion, social capital, even governance” and that’s “something that could really settle in as a perception of our country and that is something that gets to the influence of our country.”
And international influence is still essential, even amid an “America First” foreign-policy era.
“The United States lives in an interconnected world, and it needs friends and allies who want to be part of a cooperation with the United States to advance mutual interests,” said Mary Curtin, a former Foreign Service officer who is now the Humphrey School’s diplomat-in-residence.
It matters, Curtin said, because “there is a limit that any one country can do unilaterally, especially just using hard power.
It matters, said Burns, “because we don’t live on an island. Our ability to be successful for our own interests — prosperity in the country, getting out of the recession, coping with the pandemic, living in a safe, stable world — depends on us not just being successful in the world but people willing to work with us.”
“It matters,” Hanson said, speaking of an introspective aspect that’s perhaps as profound as the international one, “because the world is reflecting a mirror back on ourselves. We can’t really ignore this kind of uniform view coming our way that should make ourselves think hard.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.