The Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus and last week’s send-in-the-military response to peaceful protests over the police killing of another black man are the latest manifestations of the societal sinkholes and rot that have undermined our democracy. We’ve seen ideological carnage over the last three years, deep societal fissures ripped open by a president committed to deepening American divisions while simultaneously distancing us ever further from our allies.
Even when they knew we were embroiled in our own problems, other nations have come to us for help and guidance. Until now.
In the past, even in our weakest moments, America has largely remained true to our founding principles. Even when they knew we were embroiled in our own problems, other nations have come to us for help and guidance. Even when policy disagreements strained relations with one country or another, other nations have relied on us in a broader sense to bring the world together. And most American presidents, no matter their policies, have been respected for leading with dignity.
This is new. This is different. For over three years, world leaders have mocked Donald Trump for his childish antics, temper tantrums, willful ignorance and lack of foreign policy prowess. They have watched us walk away from the Paris Climate Accords, and nuclear agreements both long-standing – with Russia – and fresh – with Iraq, and, most recently, threaten the World Health Organization. That leadership vacuum, and those broken promises, have translated into alarm and fear, a new unknown of what America stands for and a growing unwillingness to trust and engage with us.
Diplomats have long walked these fine lines, explaining our values, our Constitution and the idea of America — at the very same time that our nation is burning. It comes with the territory. But working in government when I did – through wildly unpopular wars in the Middle East and Asia, through eras of violence in America – I never had to contend with the sort of fire currently burning down American credibility.
I know. I’ve worked for both Republican and Democratic administrations on the global stage. I’ve had to explain America around the world under incredibly difficult circumstances.
Example? I was working for the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Afghanistan during the George W. Bush administration when images and stories of soldiers torturing and abusing prisoners in Abu Ghraib, Iraq became front-page news around the world. It was 2004, and I had to explain to Muslim civil society in Kabul, and other cities, how this abomination could happen --- while simultaneously insisting that Americans really do respect all religions. It was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do while serving in government. But I believed in America, I believed the leadership because my experience as an Indian-born Muslim woman demonstrated the power of our Constitution and promise of democracy.
Later, as the State Department’s Special Representative to Muslim Communities under the Obama administration, I traveled through 80 countries at a time when, domestically, my country was experiencing frequent anti-Semitic violence and anti-Muslim attacks. Repeated school shootings and huge online hate networks were a scourge at home. And still, my constant refrain to all whom I encountered was that in America you are free to practice your religion in any church, temple, mosque or synagogue etc … of your choosing. It was often a hard sell. But I could say it, because I knew in my heart of hearts my leaders believed it too.
That’s not possible now.
The widespread images of American police brutality alongside presidential tweets and photo ops showing no empathy, humility, grace or understanding are unexplainable. Unlike Abu Ghraib or Newtown, when the president immediate went out with a statement and action, this time global audiences don’t see compassion, they see chaos. Instead of support for Black Lives Matter, the president only confirms Trump Matters.
Last week, CNN reported that the Spanish Prime Minister, Pedro Sanchez, went so far as to censure the U.S. from the floor of the Spanish Parliament. "I stand in solidarity with the demonstrations that are happening in the United States," Sanchez said. "Because obviously we are all very concerned about the authoritarian debate and those authoritarian ways that we are seeing as a response to some demonstrations." Demonstrations protesting George Floyd's death, took place around the world, from Australia to Tel Aviv.
The widespread images of American police brutality alongside presidential tweets and photo ops showing no empathy, humility, grace or understanding are unexplainable.
World confidence in America’s leadership has been steadily eroding. Back in 2017 the Pew Research Center conducted a survey of 37 countries. The findings showed just 22 percent of those polled had “confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to international affairs.” In the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, that confidence number was 64 percent.
Those 2017 poll numbers might have seemed dramatic at the time, but worse was to come. In January 2020 Pew published a new report which found "on balance, foreign publics lack confidence in Trump to do the right thing when it comes to world affairs."
This spring, Trump’s simultaneous bungling of the COVID-19 crisis, and penchant for both praising himself and blaming others, brought worldwide horror and condemnation. Irish-Times columnist Fintan O'Toole noted it was the first time America was the subject of world pity. A study published in May by the British Foreign Policy Group conducted by Sophia Gaston found only “28 percent of Britons now say they trust our strongest historical ally to act responsibly in the world, a fall of 13 percentage points since January. Conservative voters, who previously expressed outsize levels of trust in the United States, are responsible for the largest loss of confidence.” A German poll conducted by Körber-Stiftung found 73 percent of the Germans surveyed had a worse view of the United States due to pandemic response.
In a practical sense, the loss of trust in the U.S. to steer the right course, and in U.S. credibility, have meant that we are unlikely to be heard by those at the table in power around the world even if we still have a seat. We can no longer influence global issues that affect America’s bottom line and security or take part in the vital work of strategic policies from climate change to viruses to arms control. Trump may claim he has brought jobs back to America, but his disregard for how entrenched globalization has become has left us unprepared for a post-COVID reality.
The time has come to acknowledge that these consequences are real and there are urgent steps needed to restore America’s credibility and the respect that goes along with it.
It’s unlikely to happen before Election Day. We need a new administration, with new strategies to show the world the Trump years were an aberration. Here are some ideas:
- Go big on soft power. Increase the State Department budget dramatically, giving embassies the tools they need to rebuild partnerships and alliances where they were broken or invisible with strategies to entice, not expel. Reinvest in the foreign service by incentivizing those that left in disgust to return with their same rank and position and increasing opportunities for millennials to enter. Scale the asset of longterm functional and regional knowledge and diplomatic prowess from retired diplomats.
- Re-engage with policies and organizations we have abandoned, like the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization.
- Show new activism on big issues of our time: environment, racial and economic inequalities and human rights and democracy.
- Create new incentives for corporations to behave as good global citizens by infusing their missions with consideration for human rights, environmental impact, societal cohesion and living wages.
- Partner with NGOs and allied nations to fight hate of all kinds including racism, bigotry and violent extremist ideology.
- Engage younger Americans. Make Millennials and Gen Z part of the solution.
- Use America’s brainpower to create new open systems of innovation with problem solvers from varied disciplines to help the government think differently about the issues of our time .
As we emerge from our current isolation, the collective actions of government, business, philanthropy, education and science will be critical in returning us back to a working — if imperfect — union.
This won’t be easy.
We are burning badly right now. We need a re-imagined leadership agenda for the post-COVID, post-peace protest world that’s just ahead, and it must be bold, big and brave. It is our only hope to show us and the world who we really are.
In time, I believe people will look back at the madness of the last four years as our turning point – but only if we can say it was a mistake, an aberration, an anomaly in the long history of the great American experiment and we’ve learned our lessons. We need a fresh start that presents not a new normal but a new focus that brings us closer to what we dreamed we could be. November offers us that chance to turn away from the fire and restore America’s place in the world. If we don’t take it, the fire will leave us in ashes.