Is the US No Longer a Torchbearer in Times of Crisis?

Has Trump’s presidency tarnished America’s international reputation, or does the rot stretch back further?

Following the end of the second World War, the US emerged at the helm of a new world order largely dictated by the victorious western powers. The rest of the world looked to the US as self-proclaimed protectors of individual rights, freedom, and equality, as well as champions of independent justice. This almost paternal role entrenched the idea that America would spearhead the confrontation of key issues facing the modern world and could lead the rest of us through international calamity. 

That was until the world found itself in the midst of a global pandemic and America’s example read more like a recipe for disaster. Aside from president Trump’s clear fumbling of COVID at home, evidenced by the lack of coherent national policy to combat the virus, the president also showed little intention of tackling COVID with a united front. Instead, he announced America’s withdrawal from the World Health Organisation and used carefully selected statistics, lambasting the poor mortality rates of other nations, to deflect criticism.

Meanwhile, the EU closed its borders to American travellers, blacklisting them due to the substantial rise in US cases, and relations with China are at an all-time low in 30 years; in part due to Trump’s insistence on blaming them solely for the outbreak. The president has not only failed to bring together the international community to devise a united strategy, but also appears to be determined to divorce the US from its torch-bearing role as proponents of aid and assistance. Squabbles with Canada over the diversion of PPE to the US exemplify the tone taken towards global cooperation in the allocation of much sought-after supplies. Though, the increase of nationalist trading policies elsewhere, catalysed in part by the demands of the virus, may illustrate that even if American leadership is no longer sought after, the rest of the world may still be seeking to emanate the US’s approach.

While Trump cannot be blamed for prioritising American plight during these difficult times, his persistent ‘America first’ initiative has set the superpower apart from other nations at a time when the US historically used their national advantages to guide global response. If, as many have recently claimed, the collapse of Sino-American relations constitutes a new cold war, then surely the US should be doing everything within its power to further promote its position as leaders of the free world. The UK’s U-turn on Huawei and the suspension of its extradition treaty with Hong Kong may be a sign that western nations are still willing to follow US lead, even if it entails slowing the development of their own internet infrastructure and potentially facing harsh retaliation from Beijing. However, this move is in part more indicative of the UK’s determination to cling to this ‘special relationship’ as Brexit looms ever closer, rather than US efforts of coalescence. 

The current pandemic has made America’s shortcomings in current international relations painstakingly clear, however the shift in geopolitics can be seen in other ways. In declaring NATO, the bedrock of western defence, obsolete, Trump almost created a rift in the organisation great enough to undermine the foundations of the alliance. You need not look further than the charges arising from the Mueller investigation into his 2016 campaign to see evidence of the erosion of their once hailed independent justice system. The recent commutation of former advisor Roger Stone’s sentence for witness-tampering and lying to congress, sends a clear message to the rest of the world that the integrity of the American justice system is under threat. Some have gone as far to say that the US is currently behaving like a failing state. George Rennie, a lecturer at the University of Melbourne, recently argued that America is performing poorly in several key indicators of state failure; including ethnic and class conflict, inequality and democratic deterioration. The failure to reconcile race relations is perhaps the most alarming indication of a nation currently unfit to lead. 

Instead of uniting the country in a time of crisis, Trump’s preoccupation with winning the upcoming presidential election has made him hell-bent on inflaming division. The allegations that his rivals intend on inspiring a “left-wing cultural revolution” designed to give rise to national destruction, are revealing of the anxieties he seeks to incite in the minds of voters. Although Biden’s own strategy appears to centre wholly around criticism of Trump, at least his message is one of unity and hope in the face of adversity.  The current advocacy of division within America’s own borders undermines its international position, which was once committed to international unity. 

With more people unemployed in America than during the Great Depression, it is unsurprising that COVID marks the first time since World War II that the US has not seized the opportunity to provide assistance in a time of major international emergency. Nonetheless, America is not only letting its own citizens down, but also those around the world, who ordinarily would be looking to the US to anticipate the path ahead in times of global crisis. Instead, American guidance seems to have been substituted for other international arrangements. The European Union’s agreement on a comprehensive stimulus package worth €750 billion demonstrates that US assistance and instruction in the rehabilitation of other nations may no longer be required. The coronavirus has undoubtedly brought the reshaping of geopolitics to the fore; and US leadership is nowhere to be found. 

Featured Image:

Has Trump’s presidency tarnished America’s international reputation, or does the rot stretch back further?