Trump's toxic legacy hurts US soft power
Why, one might reasonably ask, is Trump arming America to the teeth? After all, he has abdicated US global leadership and let China fill the vacuum without firing a single shot
Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 on the promise to "Make America Great Again." His campaign for re-election in November pledges, with all the clueless arrogance we have come to expect, to "Keep America Great."
Is this the same America that is facing widespread protests over systemic racism and police brutality, and in which the law-enforcement officers who are supposed to keep the peace are routinely stoking violence? The America where the police kill black men at 2.5 times the rate of white men? Is Trump referring to the America that is in the throes of the world's worst Covid-19 outbreak, in which black people are dying at far higher rates than their white counterparts? The America where about 44 million people have no health insurance, and another 38 million have inadequate coverage? The one that, under Trump's leadership, has lost the respect of its friends, allies, and partners, and become an international laughingstock?
To be sure, America's problems did not begin with Trump. The US healthcare system has long been broken, inequality has been rising for decades, police brutality has always been part of American life, and systemic racism is built into the country's very foundations. US pretensions of moral leadership were being called into question well before Trump entered the White House.
But if the United States was a tinderbox of racism, inequality, and broken politics, Trump lit the match - and then held himself blameless for the resulting fires. "I don't take responsibility at all," he declared, when asked about the government's slow response to the Covid-19 crisis.
Worse, Trump continued to add fuel. He downplayed the pandemic's severity, egged on (mostly white, Republican) anti-lockdown protesters, and touted unproven and potentially dangerous treatments.
Trump's behaviour has been shocking, but not surprising. He has been exploiting America's deepest flaws since he arrived on the political scene, stoking political and cultural polarization to appease his base, including its significant component of white supremacists. And, for four consecutive years, his administration has shifted public money from the social safety net and education to the military. The US defence budget is now the largest it has been since World War II, barring a handful of years at the height of the Iraq War.
Why, one might reasonably ask, is Trump arming America to the teeth? After all, he has abdicated US global leadership and let China fill the vacuum without firing a single shot. Not only has he abandoned diplomatic norms, dismissed and betrayed allies, and bullied countries with sanctions and threats.
For Europeans - who disagreed with Trump on most of these decisions - the US is no longer a source of strategic or moral leadership. There is only one way to repair America's reputation, regain the trust of allies, and ensure that the US can act as an effective counterweight to China: address the root causes of the cracks that Trump's disastrous presidency has exposed and widened. Porter and Mykleby argued that national security depends not only on the capacity to respond to threats from foreign powers, but also - and perhaps more important - on the "application of credible influence and strength." That influence, in turn, depends on America's success in providing a "pathway of promise" for US citizens - and a model for the world.
Such soft power requires the US government to promote civilian values, foster competitiveness and innovation, protect the environment, invest in social services, health care, culture, and education.
In other words, it should be pursuing the opposite of Trump's agenda. Trump is the antithesis of the kind of leader that Max Weber believed should "be allowed to put his hand on the wheel of history." A large and growing share of Americans seems to recognize this: his approval rating has been declining for weeks. But a Trump victory in the November election remains a real possibility.
No one should have any illusions about the stakes. Winning another four-year term could embolden Trump to act even more irresponsibly, even criminally, and make his toxic legacy irreversible.
-The author is with the Toledo International Center for Peace
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