Whether Donald Trump’s presidency collapses under its own weight or goes on to last two terms, his administration is doing such sustained damage to America’s image and global leadership that it may be hard to repair any time soon.
The United States has descended from being the world’s beacon of freedom and democracy, even a deeply flawed and often hypocritical one, to becoming a banana-republic laughing stock.
As Trump lands in Paris for a high-profile meeting with the new President Emanuel Macron, he has fresh memories of his last trip to Europe for the G20 meeting which, to put it mildly, didn’t not go swimmingly.
I talked to Thomas Bernes, a veteran of Canadian trade diplomacy and former International Monetary Fund senior official, who attended last week’s closely-scrutinised meeting. His description of the events in Hamburg should serve as a cautionary tale of just how much Trump’s rise to power has eroded global trust in the United States.
Asked to describe the general sentiment regarding the current US administration in Hamburg, Bernen, now a distinguished fellow at the Center for International Governance Innovation said: “Bewilderment.
“There’s a real sense that the US has stepped back,” he said.
“There’s a hope that this is a temporary withdrawal from the framework that has largely been built by US leadership,” he told me. “But there’s a sense there’s no guarantee on that.”
Now that the seal of global US leadership, which arguably dates back to Woodrow Wilson, has been broken once, there’s a sense that it could easily happen again. It’s as if the world had lost its faith in the US electorate to make the right call on a fundamental level, with global repercussions. This was reflected in a recent Pew Research survey that showed precipitous drop in overseas sentiment toward the US president.
Making matters worse, Bernes said Trump stunned his global peers further by having his daughter replace him at the table during head-of-state level G20 discussions.
Trump has taken to Twitter to defend this unprecedented move.
Bernes’ response, after decades of attending such meetings? “No I have never seen it, I have never heard of it.”
Lawrence Summers, who was Treasury Secretary under Bill Clinton and head of President Barack Obama’s National Economic Council, did not mince words either, responding to Trump’s assertion that having his daughter replace him at the table with heads of states was somehow normal. Here’s how he responded to the president, also via Twitter:
Bernes’ chief concern is that as the United States withdraws from the world, it leaves a vacuum for repressive, expansionist regimes like China and Russia to thrive militarily.
“It’s fine to say, countries will do what they can but there are real questions in terms of who can provide the global leadership that the US has provided,” he said.
Going into the meetings, Bernes said, “there was a real sense of not knowing what was going to come out.”
G20 gatherings are often fairly dull affairs, where countries negotiate the agenda ahead of time and hash out the details during the conference.
“Normally there may be one or two points or agenda items but by and large the outlines are known,” Bernes recounted. “Here everything was up in the air. Was it going to end up with no joint communique, with people walking out on meetings?”
Things didn’t get that far, but it was bad enough.
“It was very clear very quickly that it was 19-1,” Bernes said. “The president just wasn’t engaged in the debate, he cut a very lowly, solitary figure.”
During the centrepiece climate change debate “he didn’t even stay in the room for the discussion,” which has clear and urgent global implications. Trump has already withdrawn the United States from the Paris Climate agreement.
What did conflict did Trump have that was so pressing?
“He stepped out for his bilateral with Putin,” Bernes said, a meeting that was scheduled for a half hour and ended up lasting over two, and looked chummy by all accounts, including Trump’s own.
“The other factor was you don’t have a team in place,” he added. “The fact that so many positions have not been nominated let alone filled. Countries are very frustrated that there’s no one with any authority to talk to.”
When I left Conference Room for short meetings with Japan and other countries, I asked Ivanka to hold seat. Very standard. Angela M agrees!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) July 10, 2017
There is no precedent for a head of govt’s adult child taking a seat, as was the case when Ivanka Trump took her father’s place at the G20
— Lawrence H. Summers (@LHSummers) July 10, 2017