America’s Burgeoning Influence Deficit
If influence is the power to produce an effect without the exertion of force, then the US is more influential today than perhaps at any time in its history because what the US (or its president) says or does, still matters. Under Donald Trump, America exerts more influence than any other country on earth not so much because it remains the world’s preeminent military and economic power, but because of the seemingly insatiable appetite of the global media and its adherents: more people hear or read about what he says than any other person in history. It should be added that a significant percentage of people around the world who listen to what he has to say do so because they are either entertained by or horrified to hear what comes out of his mouth – not because they necessarily agree with him or will be influenced by his words or deeds.
America used to be the envy of the world because of its values and willingness to act on them. Today, many people inside and outside the US are undoubtedly more inclined to wonder just what America’s “values” actually are, and whether, when, or how it will act on them. That clearly diminishes its ability to influence its friends and allies, as well as its adversaries.
The irony is that Trump increasingly views the world that America largely crafted after WWII as its enemy, as he deliberately attempts to dismantle trade agreements and other multilateral arrangements that govern the global economy. Some of Washington’s most stalwart allies – such as the UK and Australia – feel as though they cannot count on the America they have known and embraced for decades, implying they must increasingly rely on themselves, their other allies, and new alliances in order to shape the future.
Apart from being self-defeating to the world it worked so hard to attempt to create and influence, Washington’s burgeoning influence deficit is also greatly benefitting the two powers Trump has recently identified as America’s two primary adversaries: China and Russia. China benefits because, apart from the US, Beijing is stronger and more influential than any other country. It has seized the mantle of multilateralism, global trade and climate change accords, and soft power to already have become the world’s most influential nation based on something other than military power or sound bites. Russia benefits because of its ability to assertively and confidently pick up the slack in some of the countries America is leaving behind, such as in Syria and Turkey, while simultaneously expanding its own sphere of influence in the Middle East and beyond.
Trump’s upending of the apple cart is having some profoundly negative effects on international relations, diplomacy, and statecraft, but it is also forcing nations around the world to take a good hard look at themselves and ask some basic questions about their alliances and presumptions. Whether or not that is a good thing will largely be a function of how they are able to transform an exercise in self-reflection into meaningful and enduring action.
As an example, India and Turkey have seized the moment, not waiting to see what happens next in America, and while it remains too soon to say how many others will do the same, it is clear that many other nations will reject America First while acknowledging that they must inevitably do what is necessary to elbow their way to the front of the line, inevitably pursuing a de facto ‘me first’ approach to international relations. While this is not an unfamiliar approach to many nations, when the majority of the world’s nations brazenly pursue that path, it becomes self-destructive for all concerned.
While America’s political, economic, financial and military predominance in the world for the past 70 years is seen by some observers as little more than self-serving, the US succeeded in creating an international community based on multilateralism and rule of law. One can rightly question whether there is much of a sense of international community today. Some of the post-War multilateral institutions that were put into place in the latter half of the 20th century have already become, or are becoming, obsolete as a result of a failure to adapt, along with the rise of emerging economies. The creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and BRICS Bank – neither of which include the US – is evidence that the world is simply moving on without the US.
For those who are not fans of Trump it is easy to simply dismiss him as a lunatic and his approach to the world as an historical aberration. That is disingenuous however, because the idea of turning the pyramid upside down in a country where so many things do not work, and in a world that is in such a state of dramatic change, could be seen as an essential precursor to embracing and benefitting from a briskly transformational present. Wrapped in a different package, some of what Trump represents – radical change, a dismissal of the status quo, and a refusal to be politically correct – could be seen as a gift. The problem, of course, is that we cannot know what the ultimate manifestations of Trump and what represents will be – for America or the world.
What is clear, however, is that America’s influence in the world was already in a state of decline during the Obama years and has picked up pace since Trump assumed the throne. The US will surely not become more influential as it withdraws further from the world, and China continues its ascendancy. Washington’s global influence deficit will continue as long as Trump is in power and its future leaders fail to do something meaningful to restore America’s place in the world. However, by then, it may be too late.