Since the beginning of the twentieth century, the U.S. has played an essential role in international affairs. Teddy Roosevelt articulated this vision of diplomacy in a 1901 speech when he famously declared “speak softly, and carry a big stick.”
The general idea behind this pithy adage was that the U.S., as an emerging global power, should do what it can to arrive at peaceful resolutions during the course of international negotiations, but at the same time should not be afraid to exercise military force if the situation calls for it.
Today, big stick diplomacy is as much associated with American imperialism as it is with American global leadership, but when Roosevelt delivered that speech, he ushered in a new era in which the U.S. would be the one of the world’s most important international players. This role has of course fluctuated since then, with different Presidents either emphasizing or downplaying the extent to which the U.S. should exert power over other countries. But ever since the Roosevelt presidency, few have ever seriously questioned the United States’ place in the world.
American presidents have endorsed different agendas, of course, but all of them recognized that the United States had an obligation to set the standard for the international community, and to promote global peace and cooperation.
But with the election of Donald Trump, that longstanding norm has suffered substantial damage. Indeed, it was only mere days ago that the Leader of the Free World brazenly declared that he wanted nothing to do with people who come from “shithole countries.” Crass and completely inappropriate though these comments may be, they are nonetheless true to Trump’s slogan, “America First.” After all, Trump reasons, he was elected to represent the citizens of “Pittsburgh, not Paris.” What does he care if people in some other part of the world (Nambia, perhaps he might say) are struggling?
Never in recent memory has an American president so blithely abdicated the responsibilities and obligations that come with being a global leader.
Since taking office, Trump has withdrawn the U.S. from the Paris Agreement (an international effort to combat climate change) the Trans-Pacific Partnership (a strategic economic agreement intended to facilitate global trade) and has attempted to implement one of the most discriminatory immigration policies this country has seen in decades with his infamous travel ban.
As the journalist Evan Osnos concluded, few countries can remember a time when America was actively pursuing a smaller role in the world. Yet that is exactly what has happened in the first year of the Trump Administration.Trump has not only precipitated the departure of the U.S. from key international agreements, but he has also demonstrated a callous and cavalier disregard for anyone who lacks American citizenship.
Perhaps the best example of this abrupt and contemptible departure from presidential norms is Trump’s continued insistence that the border wall between the United States and Mexico will be built. During the campaign, some dismissed Trump’s rhetoric that an actual wall would be built and that “Mexico will pay for it” as mere folderol that was only intended to curry favor with undecided voters. But one year into his presidency, Trump still remains obstinately in favor of his original proposal to build a physical wall along the border despite criticism from both sides of the aisle. The U.S. is a country that recognizes the inherent dignity of every person, including those from foreign countries. The Declaration of Independence was not a banal platitude. It was an affirmation that at the time was controversial but now is regarded as indisputable: all people are created equal, and all deserve to be treated with equal dignity and respect.
But it has become increasingly apparent that President Trump values opportunism and xenophobia far more than the principles of this country’s founding. While it is true that nothing genuinely catastrophic has occurred on the international stage since Trump’s election, America has nevertheless shirked its global leadership position in a way that could have implications long after Trump leaves office.
The U.S. has undoubtedly suffered significant damage to its global political reputation, but just as troubling to me is the ever more negative opinions that ordinary citizens of other countries hold with respect to the U.S. I can offer only anecdotal evidence, but in my time abroad last semester, I heard everyone from professors to pundits to my host family bemoan the decline of the U.S. since Trump assumed office. The worst part of all of this was that I could rarely rebuff their comments about President Trump even if I wanted to, as it was clear to me that most of the criticism leveled against him was entirely just.