President Donald Trump has been the most divisive and one of the most recognizable American presidents in living memory. His policies reach right around the globe. His social media footprint is bigger than any other leader. His ability to attract attention, often negative, is unrivaled. Though the vast majority of people across the planet don’t get a vote for the leader of the free world, we are all impacted by the outcome.
Since he took office, Trump and his prodigious tweeting have given the planet more to talk about than any other recent American leader.
For many outside the US, he appears a product of an American entertainment culture — though one far removed from the old-fashioned Hollywood allure which generations of moviegoers once eagerly devoured.
Trump, a self-styled “stable genius,” and his impact on the world could not be more different. His entertainment chops were honed in reality TV, which vaulted him to the global stage. What America saw on his hit show, “The Apprentice,” is what the world got — and it wasn’t exactly what most expected from the leader of the free world.
The former real estate developer’s transactional approach has translated into a fragmented foreign policy. Rather than learn on the job, the President demanded that other leaders and institutions change to suit him. But in the process, this often cost the US in international standing and stature.
Abandonment of global leadership
During past US presidential elections, citizens of many nations often said it didn’t matter who won. That’s not the case this year.
A host of high-drama international issues are unresolved: The future of NATO is uncertain. Humanity’s most pressing existential need, curbing climate change, is struggling to get off the ground. Iran and North Korea are yet to be coaxed toward concessions on potentially dangerous nuclear development. Russia is poisoning who it wants, when it wants, with impunity. And conflict with China that could envelop the world continues to escalate.
If Trump keeps the White House, we won’t just see four more years of the same erratic, seat-of-the-pants policymaking that distinguished his administration’s first term at the world’s helm. Instead, expect the cascading consequences of his miscalculations — the most serious being his abandonment of global leadership — to start catching up with him.
Although Trump would later sanction Russia over Ukraine and expel 60 Russia diplomats for Moscow’s use of a deadly nerve agent against a former Russian agent in the UK, Trump never got ahead of Putin on big foreign policy issues after falling behind in Hamburg.
Trump’s self-belief and lack of experience have also run the US into trouble with China, despite initially having the backing of allies who agreed China’s intellectual property theft and predatory trade policies had gotten out of hand.
What began as a US-China trade war sending shivers through global stock markets has now become a military escalation in the South China Sea, and exchanges of sanctions. Today, there’s still no trade deal, and Beijing is flexing its authoritarian power in Hong Kong. As Trump tries to pin blame for the coronavirus pandemic on Xi, the world waits to find out what comes next in the growing confrontation between the world’s top economic powers.
No appetite for foreign commitments?
Trump’s rival, the Democratic nominee Joe Biden, has offered a more traditional vision of the US role in all this. He says he would work by consensus with allies, offer Iran an off-ramp from increasing tensions and stay tough on China.
But will Americans buy that argument? Many have lost their appetite for the foreign commitments and entanglements that leading the free world requires.
A 47-year veteran of US politics, much of it spent working foreign policy, Biden is considered abroad to have a steadier pair of hands than Trump. But he also has a lot of catching up to do — in the years since he was in high office, the world has changed: issues like misinformation and cybersecurity threats, an insidious pandemic, and a reckoning on racial justice will be stacking his in-tray should he get to the Oval Office.
With this much at stake, whether people tune in to confirm Trump’s White House season is truly over or root for a four-year encore, it will likely be the most-watched drum roll for a presidential season finale.
Reality TV, of the type that made the incumbent a household name, doesn’t get any more real than this. Could this really be where Trump gets written out of the script?