Despite its claims of making America more respected and feared in the world, the Trump administration’s behaviours have only contributed to accelerating the decline in America’s leadership. President Trump’s demonstrated disdain for international agreements and law, his erratic behaviour, and his reckless tweets, have left world leaders and their publics alternating between being confounded and frightened. One result has been that some allies and opponents have sought leadership and more predictable partnerships elsewhere.
This was not the way it was just three decades ago when the United States emerged victorious from the Cold War and the first Bush administration appeared to seamlessly manage the transition to a unipolar world order. While the Clinton administration largely maintained continuity with their predecessor’s approach, President George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq marked the beginning of the unravelling of American leadership and the end of the idea of a unipolar world.
Unlike the constructive use of diplomacy favoured by his father and President Clinton, George W.’s policies were reckless and unilateral, and, more often than not, shaped more by ideology than reality. The results were devastating to the US and the world. Iraq was a case in point.
Far from restoring America’s leadership role, the Trump Administration’s failure to deliver on its promises, its lack of coherency, and its penchant for one-off dangerous acts, have made it feared, but not trusted as a reliable partner.
According to the neoconservative ideologues who were driving George W.’s approach to the Middle East, a decisive use of force against Iraq would accomplish a number of critical objectives. First and foremost, it would secure the US role as the dominant world hegemon, insuring a US-led unipolar world for the foreseeable future. They also believed that with Saddam Hussain gone, democracy would spontaneously take root in Iraq, transforming not only that country but the entire Middle East.
Rise of ‘other’ powers
As we have seen, the opposite occurred. America became ground down in a long costly war that took a terrible toll not only in lives and treasure, but in America’s standing in the world. As the war dragged on, it became clear that not only was America weaker and less respected, but other regional and international players began to assert themselves. As a result of this foolish war, the very multipolarity the neoconservatives sought to forestall became a reality.
Globally, Russia and China expanded their roles and, in the Middle East, Turkey and Iran sought increased influence, as did Saudi Arabia and its GCC partners. Maybe the most consequential impact of the Iraq war was the extent to which it emboldened and unleashed Iran, enabling it to pursue its meddlesome sectarian behaviour across the region.
The Obama administration began with great promise. Recognising the damage done by his predecessor, President Obama declared his intention to correct course and rebuild confidence in America’s role in the world. So desperate were some to see America restored as a stable leader and partner that the new president was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. The award proved to be premature. Obama’s failure to deliver on his visionary promise and his administration’s tendency to hesitate and/or meander when confronted by challenges, caused both frustration and deep disappointment.
Then came Donald Trump. Despite early signs of erratic behaviour and his “shoot-first-ask-questions-later” approach to global and domestic problems, there was some hope — especially in parts of the Middle East — that given his business background, he would be fair and decisive in the policies he pursued in the world. This, too, proved to be premature.
Reckless, bombastic, and unpredictable
After Bush and Obama, what many across the Middle East hoped for was a Goldilocks and Three Bears US president. One who wouldn’t be “too much” or “too little” — but “just right.” They wanted American leadership that was decisive, principled, and predictable. What they got instead was the worst of the past combined in one president. He has been reckless, bombastic, and unpredictable. And he has made great promises that have elevated expectations, only to fail to deliver on them.
Recent polling from Pew Research demonstrates how the public’s attitudes toward the US and President Trump have witnessed sharp declines in many nations across the world. In Europe, the Americas, and the Middle East favourable attitudes toward the US went from lows during the years of George W. Bush’s presidency to highs in the early Obama years to lows, once again, in the Trump era. And in our Zogby Research Services (ZRS) polling we found, with a few exceptions, much the same trajectory across the Middle East.
In the fall of 2019, for example, we found that the initial optimism in some Arab countries that Trump administration policies toward some regional concerns might move in a positive direction has now dissipated. There is a sharp decline in respondents’ views of US policies toward resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict, helping to stabilise Syria and Iraq, deal constructively with the Muslim world, and coherently address the threats posed by Iran’s nuclear and regional agendas.
When we asked respondents in 10 countries whether they have seen positive or negative change in US policy toward each of these critical concerns — in almost every instance and in almost every country, negative change far surpassed positive change. In only one case — that of US policy toward Syria — did respondents in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE see some signs of positive change — largely due to the successful fight against Daesh. This, however, was before the Trump Administration sent conflicting signals about its intention to withdraw from Syria. As a result, when we asked respondents in the same 10 countries to look forward to the next decade and identify the countries they felt would be their most dependable ally, the US ranked first in only Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE. Ranking high in other countries were the EU (first in Tunisia, Lebanon, and Turkey) and China, with Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Russia, and India scoring well in a few others.
The bottom line here is that in just three decades, the US has gone from being the undisputed superpower to a mere competitor with other global and regional powers. Far from restoring America’s leadership role, the Trump Administration’s failure to deliver on its promises, its lack of coherency, and its penchant for one-off dangerous acts, have made it feared, but not trusted as a reliable partner. And so other nations, have either turned elsewhere for partnerships or been forced to rely on their own resources. The decline of America’s role continues.
— Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.