A matter of hours after Donald Trump was elected to the US presidency, I spoke with an adviser to the ruling circles of one of the Gulf states. He told me his bosses were surprised but cheered by the American election result. Trump’s was a style they recognized. The “dictator chic” of the various Trump palaces—all glitter and gold—and the official roles handed to the leader’s children and their spouses: this was very much the Arab autocrat’s preferred way of doing business.
But there was more to celebrate than a simple familiarity of style. Gulf leaders and others relished the prospect of a Trump presidency because, they reasoned, the “moral distance” between themselves and the United States would shrink.
For decades, my source explained, Washington had lectured them (and everyone else) from on high about democratic norms, transparency, and corruption. Every diplomatic meeting had to begin with a stern wagging of the American finger about human rights, women’s equality, or free speech. They expected none of that from Trump, who had demonstrated his cavalier disregard for such norms throughout the election campaign, whether by attacking a free press, by voicing his desire to jail his chief political opponent, or by blurring so conspicuously the line that should separate a leader’s public role from his personal business interests.
Gone would be the familiar, if occasionally grating, dynamic whereby America—no matter how flawed its own record—would offer itself as an example to be followed, especially in those parts of the world estranged from democracy. From now on, the US and the likes of the Gulf states would sit down together, if not as equals then at least as unabashed players of the same, transactional game: realists and men of the world, out to strike bargains that might benefit their countries but would certainly enrich themselves and their families. Barack Obama and his halo would be gone, replaced by a handshake with a son-in-law and the art of the deal.
In the year that’s passed since that day, the optimism of the Gulf’s oil-rich potentates looks well-founded. The US under Trump has indeed vacated the moral high ground, both directly and indirectly. It has given up the sermonizing of the past, preferring to shrug its shoulders at, or even applaud, authoritarian behavior overseas. Witness the tweet Trump sent Xi Jinping in October, congratulating his Chinese counterpart on tightening his already supreme grip on power in that one-party state. Or the similar admiration he expressed this month for the purge conducted by the Saudi crown prince and his henchmen: “they know exactly what they are doing.” Just as telling was the speech the US president gave in Warsaw in July, not least for what it did not say. Trump lavished praise on the nationalist, right-wing government of Poland, without so much as mentioning the squeeze that government had put on both its press and judiciary.
But Trump has not just dismounted from America’s moral high horse. He has descended into the ditch to join those the US once felt able to condemn.
Consider the stand-off with North Korea. Satirists around the world have had fun mocking the similarities between Trump and his opposite number in Pyongyang. They run pictures of the pair, identifying them as “A crazed, thin-skinned, impetuous autocrat with his finger hovering over the nuclear trigger—and Kim Jong-un.” That gag points to the bleak truth that many have come to see Trump as no more unstable, and no less a threat to world peace, than the dictator of a totalitarian slave state. A global survey of thirty seven countries by the Pew Research Center in June found that within just six months, the favorability rating of the US had fallen by fifteen points, from 64 percent to 49 percent. (Only in Russia and Israel did Trump win greater approval than Obama.) Global esteem for the US has plunged into the same trough it occupied at the end of the George W. Bush era, after both the invasion of Iraq and the financial crash.
For a year, in overseas chancelleries or foreign policy seminars, the mere mention of Trump’s name has been enough to induce eye-rolling and gallows laughter. Among the expert class, there is a kind of wan hope that we are living through a bizarre but temporary interlude, and that normal service will soon be resumed. One small sign of that was the warm, even heroine’s, welcome that greeted Hillary Clinton on her recent international book tour. Non-Americans fell at her feet, glad to be reminded of what normal US leadership used to sound like—and how it might, perhaps, sound again one day.
For beneath the daily exasperation and loathing that Trump induces—and Americans are not the only ones waking up to check their newsfeed to see what new outrage the president has committed—is a deeper fear: that Trump is destroying the international system that has kept much of the world broadly peaceful and prosperous since 1945.
Consider Trump’s assault on the postwar global architecture. NATO members have been shaken by his repeated reluctance to restate the US commitment to Article 5, the all-for-one-and-one-for-all clause that binds each ally into a promise of reciprocal defense. For a speech in Brussels in May, Trump’s official text included just such a commitment—but he did not utter the words.
Trump has caused similar alarm with the blundering, bellicose way he handles the delicate tools of nuclear statecraft. His refusal to recertify the nuclear pact with Iran, for example, has prompted many to suspect that no diplomatic track with North Korea could ever work: why would Pyongyang sign an accord aimed at nuclear disarmament, knowing that a future US president might tear it up, just as Trump apparently wants to shred the deal with Tehran?
These formal ruptures that Trump has made with the international system, including his exit from the Paris accords on climate change, have caused unease enough. But those outside the US also fear the subtler tears Trump is ripping into the global fabric. His refusal to condemn, or even admit, Russian interference in the 2016 US election has surely emboldened Moscow to repeat the trick wherever and whenever it can, across the democratic world. No election now seems safe.
And Trump’s encouragement of white supremacism—he said those who marched in the robes of the Klan and carried aloft the swastika in Charlottesville included “some very fine people”—also has global reach. It has emboldened racist parties elsewhere, their resolve stiffened by confidence that the supposed leader of the free world is on their side. Whether it’s the supporters of Marine Le Pen in France or the Alternative für Deutschland, ethno-nationalists see Trump as a torch-bearer for their cause, a kindred spirit whose success in as diverse a nation as the US tells them their time has come. Some speak of a new “Illiberal International,” others of a “Nationalist International.” Either way, Trump is at the head of it.
Until a year ago, the US was setting a lead of a very different sort. America’s first black president seemed about to make way for the first woman president. Once again, the US was offering an example to the world, affording a glimpse of what twenty-first century democracy might look like. Instead, Trump has provided a glimpse into a gloomier future, one of lies, ethnic division, authoritarianism, and the ever-looming prospect of war. It’s fair to say that most outside the US are counting down the days, like a prisoner scratching marks onto the wall, waiting for Trump to be gone, so that the world might feel steadier, and safer, again.
This essay is part of a series reflecting on the first year since Donald Trump’s election as president.