A Rudderless Ship

Updated: Jul 21, 2020

What has felt like the longest week in a year full of the most distressing global events in human history may also constitute the first stage of failure of the ‘American Experiment.’ Equally troubling, such failures also signal the end of faith in US leadership during times of universal crisis. With the president literally and symbolically isolated in the White House bunker, the international community now finds itself officially unconvinced that multilateral solutions involving the US can endure. Pandemic, riots, and partisanship aside, that is the true tragedy of this nation and of this president.

Earlier this week, for instance, German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that she would not be attending the Group of 7 (G7) in Camp David this month—citing concerns over the ongoing pandemic. However, as high-ranking German officials have explained, her decision is rather more emblematic of the division President Trump has created over the past four years between the United States and its European allies. Among other reasons, they noted that “proper diplomatic preparations had not been made” to adequately receive these world leaders in Washington. Clearly, even at the most fundamental level of diplomatic interaction—that being the nature of protocol, precedence, ceremony, etc.—the White House has demonstrated its complete lack of respect for its global partners as well as overall neglect for a set of customs that have existed for over a century. Trump loves the photo op but has yet to lay the diplomatic groundwork or engage in a single foreign policy achievement either for the US or its allies—even when working unilaterally. Instead, he has fumbled a trade war with China, propagated insecurity by leaving nuclear agreements with Russia and Iran, pulled support from the World Health Organization in the midst of a pandemic, worsened relations with North Korea, and abandoned the rest of the world on the existential question of climate change. Apart from protocol, it is no wonder Merkel decided to sit this one out.

United States unilateralism under Trump continually frustrates and aggravates both allies and other states concerned with international peace and security. Not only does it create diplomatic headaches, it tends to foster insecurity and greater overall loss for the United States. Though sometimes popular in the domestic sphere, unilateralism in the contemporary world (especially amidst a pandemic and civil unrest around the world) is simply an irresponsible strategy. According to the scholar Bruce Jentleson, “multilateralism’s greatest strength lies in its very logic,” for “the freedom of action given up by acting multilaterally tends to be outweighed by the capacity gained to achieve shared objectives.” Of course, if Trump’s foreign policy has proven anything since 2017, it is that there is no logic to his actions. Instead of approaching these current difficulties as a unified front both at home and abroad, Trump has failed spectacularly to be the leader the United States has been since World War II.

Meanwhile, as thousands of protestors marched in Washington on the evening of May 31st, Trump absconded to his bunker and had the White House exterior lights turned off. Countless commentators have remarked on the eerily symbolic nature of this event, but to use Trump’s own words from 2014, “it’s almost like the United States has no President – we are a rudderless ship heading for a major disaster.”

Donald “Nostradamus” Trump

To be sure, the United States is not alone in its general mismanagement over foreign and domestic affairs—particularly with this pandemic. British diplomat Harold Nicolson once noted that a persistent problem with diplomacy is the great difficulty democratic states have in securing multilateral agreements given their common two-level negotiations between governments, misunderstood domestic norms, and concern over popular opinion. However, this void in leadership from the world’s only superpower is quite dangerous all the same. With the administration now further distracted at home, we can only assume that its rivals abroad are actively working to undermine US influence and superiority.

In the end, Americans can only do their part in securing new adequate leadership that the rest of the world can respect after this administration’s reign has passed. Though today, as Trump sits alone tweeting in his bunker, the world burns. Now, after four years of trying in vain to work with Nero, the world looks to each other for support—and to the United States with exasperating despondence.

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