Opinion: Trump’s UN Speech Forecasts the Fall of American Soft Power

It was the laughter heard ‘round the world.

American president Donald Trump, no stranger to self-aggrandizing boasts, spoke before world leaders, heads of state, and premier diplomats at the UN General Assembly late September. Amongst dubious claims about peace efforts in North Korea and his administration’s push against the international community’s “unfair trade deals”, the president nonchalantly claimed that his administration had accomplished more in two years than “almost any other administration” in American history.

The man who claimed America was the butt of the world’s jokes was met with uproarious, unconstrained laughter.

It was a surreal moment, one whose significance cannot be overstated amidst the chaos of contemporary American politics: the sitting US president, the leader of the free world, was openly mocked by an assembly of nearly all international powers, allies and enemies alike. Friends and foes united in their derision against what was once the most powerful man in the world.

This is but a snapshot of the global rise in dissatisfaction and mistrust regarding US leadership in the era of Trump. Global approval of American leadership has been decreased more than fifty percent since 2016, with the Obama administration enjoying a forty-eight percent approval rate compared the current thirty percent under Trump. This is not due to the Trump administration being relatively new to power and thus unknown to a global audience, demonstrated by the relatively consistent rates at which respondents said they had no opinion. These losses were observed most dramatically in the United States’s traditional allies: Mexico, Canada, and every Western European nation dropped at least ten points in terms of approval ratings. It’s not difficult to see why: the Trump administration has not been shy about its “America First” agenda. North American allies have been constantly scrutinized about their “unfair” trade practices with the US under NAFTA and have been forced to renegotiate under the new USMCA, not to mention the president’s constant attacks on Mexico and promises to “build the wall”. Further south, Latin America also shows increasing resentment toward US leadership, in no small part due to the cuts in foreign aid from the US and the caricature put forth by president Trump of countries in flaming ruins, engulfed in chaos. Europe also has reason for its increased distrust: once-universally respected institutions like NATO have been thrown into question by this pugnacious president, the threat of Russian encroachment has not been addressed by its one time mortal enemy, and nativist, populist candidates that threaten to destabilize the continent are being encouraged by Trump’s example and often tacit verbal endorsements. The single exception to this rule amongst allies is Israel, whose rise in approval is most likely due to their close ideological and political alliance with the Trump administration over such issues as Palestine, international organizations, and Iran. America’s traditional enemies, on the other hand, show the opposite: Iraq and Russia are but two of the nations where approval of US leadership has increased by as much as ten percentage points.

The Trump administration is alienating its allies and cozying up with its enemies. And while the bluster of the president may have elicited chuckles, the fall of American soft power is no laughing matter.

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