The American Brand is Wounded…But It Will Recover

Every time I think the editorials, commentaries, tweets announcing the end of US global leadership have reached a crescendo, it seems that some new decision or announcement from the White House elevates concern again. I confess that I, too, have decried the abdication of a leading role for the United States on the world stage more than once in recent weeks. 

From a strategic standpoint, there have been numerous policy errors in the first few months of the new administration of US President Donald J. Trump.  From a wavering stance on NATO, which does not acknowledge the full value of the Alliance, to a cozy relationship with strongmen and near silence on human rights, to the announcement on June 1 that the United States will pull out of the Paris climate accord, Trump’s actions have rattled allies and created uncertainty about the trajectory of US leadership.  Whether or not one agrees with these and other foreign policy decisions of the Trump administration, it is indisputable that these have been difficult months for the American brand around the world. 

The American brand—our reputation, the perception that those around the world have of the United States, and the things they associate with it—is not a strategic end in itself. Being liked within the international community is not a security strategy, but it has been a cornerstone of the United States’ global influence since it emerged as a world power more than a century ago.

In the wake of Trump’s first meeting with NATO leaders, traditionally steadfast allies such as Germany and Canada publicly noted their diminished confidence in the United States.  The United States’ reputation has been hit hardest in the places that matter most—places where the governments are genuinely democratic and representative, and where it is not only leaders but the general public that has lost confidence in US leadership.  Countries that are now doubting the United States as a viable partner on the world stage are those that have lent, and continue to lend, their support for US operations, whose soldiers have fought side by side with our own, who have invested in our companies and our people.

As a US diplomat, I was often aware that people wanted the United States at the table not only because we have the strongest military and largest economy in the world, but also because of what that military and economic might are attached to: a political experiment grounded in individual rights and human dignity.  The universal principles underlying the American experiment resonate around the world even where the freedoms and protections that follow from them are not enjoyed.  These principles are at the core of the American brand.

Our American brand has had the power to confer a kind of presumed legitimacy on a meeting, a process, an arrangement, a policy priority.  That is why nearly every world leader wants a photo op with the US president.  When former President George W. Bush made combatting HIV/AIDS a centerpiece of his development policy he both leveraged and enhanced the American brand.  When former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton gave a speech about Internet freedom and when she declared that LGBTI rights are human rights during her time in the Obama administration, she took on issues that had been peripheral or marginalized and, by speaking for the United States, she made them mainstream: suddenly every foreign ministry had to have a perspective on them.   

The nihilism that large numbers of people both in the United States and abroad perceive in the decisions of the Trump administration, a sentiment which seems to have escalated anew with the announcement that Washington will pull out of the Paris agreement, has no recent precedent.  People disagreed with the Iraq war, but mostly they disagreed with it as a tactical mistake in a foreign policy agenda that purported to be about expanding freedom’s reach and enhancing security.  While US involvement in Iraq may have been a grave error, costly in blood and treasure, it was not an attempt to destroy or disavow the international system. What the Trump administration is doing is different. Trump’s actions are not tactical errors; they are strategic ones, though it is difficult to call the administration’s foreign policy strategic at all. 

National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster is no dummy.  He was nonetheless facile and wrong when he declared in the Wall Street Journal that “the world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses compete for advantage.”  Sure, the world is not only a global community, and it does include competition.  However, the United States has invested its leadership and resources in—and benefited tremendously from—building an international system that enables robust cooperation in seizing opportunities and confronting the challenges of the twenty-first century.  America alone is not a recipe for America first.

Yet, as bad as things are—and they are very, very bad—we should be optimistic. Trump can be foolish, and there is much he can dismantle and destroy.  However, he cannot squelch the idea that is America.  He cannot undo the experiment which, for all its remaining imperfections that demand our fervent work, has been a tremendous success. We should be optimistic because although the damage Trump and his administration inflict on the American brand is enormous, the American idea is greater, and enough will remain of our brand that we will be able to earn the world’s forgiveness.  When the United States is ready to once again stand for the principles and purpose that have made us great, the world will once again be ready to stand with us.

So, when I am depressed about the state of our reputation in the world, I daydream about the day—in a little less than four (or eight) years—when a new US president will visit London, Paris, Rome, Ottawa, Berlin, and beyond to reassure the people and leaders of our allies, those friends of principle rather than convenience, that the long transatlantic nightmare is over.  A new president should reassure them that the United States once again stands for human dignity and freedom; that America recognizes that America First is a cheap slogan and a lousy strategy for the twenty-first century; that the United States they know, love, respect, and believe in is back.

Daniel Baer is a former US ambassador to the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. You can follow him on Twitter @danbbaer.

Image: US President Donald Trump (R) speaks beside NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the start of the NATO summit at their new headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, May 25, 2017. (REUTERS/Christian Hartmann)