Will the United States Once Again Reclaim Its Global Leadership Role?

After four years with Donald Trump, it is obvious that the world knows one thing: the United States has at least temporarily lost its moral leadership and status as key figure. Washington is currently isolated on several matters and is not even at the negotiating table when the world discusses issues such as climate and health. Joe Biden promises a policy change in regard to America’s status and role in the world, but it is still unclear whether time has run out for the United States as the world’s leading superpower.

Four more years with Trump could have seriously changed the world’s geopolitical structure, or at least weakened the United States even more internationally. Its title as the world’s leader was challenged even before Trump took office in 2017, but his “America First” presidency has seriously diminished the country’s role in the world. When campaigning, Trump made it clear that he would advance the idea of putting the United States and Americans first, and that the country’s interplay with the rest of the world should be governed by the question, “What’s in it for us?” The consequence would be that the United States would lose influence in the long term, but the short-term-minded outgoing president could not care less.

According to Trump, for far too long Washington spent too much money and too much energy on incompetent alliances and organizations that did not benefit the United States. America as global policeman and defender of the rights of people elsewhere in the world should be history. For the past four years, this fundamental shift in the role and prioritization of American foreign policy has only resulted in withdrawal from the diplomatic scene, withdrawals from various alliances and reduction of resources spent on international relations. This policy will most likely change during the Biden administration. When Biden selected his national security and foreign policy teams, the newly elected president declared in a speech that the United States was “ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”

Demoralized Foreign Service

Since World War II, the United States has dominated world affairs, perhaps challenged only by the Soviet Union during the Cold War. The root of this dominance lies above all else in the country’s economic, military and political power. In addition, maintaining this status requires effort and a global system spreading its tentacles across all corners of the world. For decades, the U.S. Foreign Service has by far been the largest in the world, surpassed in the last few years only by China’s Foreign Service. The State Department in Washington, D.C. is a huge complex housing around 5,000 employees who supervise over 270 representations worldwide (in comparison, Denmark has 103). From Freetown to Jakarta, the U.S. embassies often possess the best intelligence and the sharpest analysis of the situation, as well as a direct channel to local leaders.

However, Trump has reduced and demoralized this enormous system, the formerly proud Foreign Service. He has deliberately left many ambassadorial positions and key appointments in Washington unfilled; because they could not see themselves as representatives of the administration, ranking diplomats have also walked out, leaving in frustration or experiencing pressure to resign.

From the onset, it has been clear that Trump has had no great enthusiasm for diplomats or the role of diplomacy. His first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, came from a leadership position in the oil industry and his primary task was to cut down a significant portion of the State Department’s budget. He never became popular with employees and was quickly fired as he failed to become part of Trump’s inner circle.

His successor, Mike Pompeo, has had more luck being in the erratic president’s good books and became one of his most loyal aides. Pompeo also disappointed many in Foggy Bottom, aka the U.S. State Department, when he endorsed Trump’s insult of several employees involved in the Trump-Ukraine scandal. Moreover, he has led a foreign policy and been the vanguard of a style that even seasoned officials have had difficulty digesting. The classic diplomat appreciates virtues such as experience, good manners, patience and an appreciation of history, culture and geography, which are not exactly character traits that have been associated with Trump and his foreign policy team.

Leading the Way?

The United States is not just a superpower because of its military, economy and enormous bureaucracy. America continues to represent something very special to many people around the world: a multicultural experiment and a place to live out your dreams and live in freedom. For decades, Washington has emerged as the world’s moral guardian. The country’s reputation has been tarnished by wars, support of several dictators and a hypocritical role in Cuba, the Middle East and elsewhere. However, the United States has generally been on the right side of history and has led the way for democratic principles and the international system we know today.

Without the United States, the United Nations, NATO, decolonization, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and countless peace agreements would not exist. When describing their beloved homeland, Ronald Reagan spoke of “the shining city upon a hill” and George H.W. Bush of “a thousand points of light” — a country that was a shining example for the rest of the world. At a campaign rally a few years ago, Trump mocked Bush’s description, saying he never quite got “the thousand points of light.” Of course he did not get it. “I know one thing: Make America great again, we understand. Putting America first, we understand,” he said.

The world knows at least one thing after four years with Trump: The United States has — at least temporarily — lost its moral voice and status as a country leading the way. In December, when Pompeo called Venezuela’s election fraudulent and a sham, it not only sounded hollow but also seemed almost ridiculous. Considering the Jan. 6 storming of Congress, can the United States really teach other countries what a well-functioning democracy should look like?

While Washington’s closest allies condemned the rioters, countries such as China, Iran, Russia and Zimbabwe quickly used the situation to ridicule U.S. democracy and question the administration’s criticism of other governments and the way they lead their countries.

Friends with Dictators

In light of Trump’s dubious understanding of democracy, it is no wonder that he seems to be in better company with dictators than with elected leaders. While he has regularly humiliated or insulted close allies, he has expressed great respect for authoritarian figures, such as Duterte in the Philippines, el-Sisi in Egypt and Erdoğan in Turkey. This flattery for strongmen goes hand in hand with Trump’s contempt for human rights and a free press.

The president has most often remained completely silent when violations have been committed by countries with which the United States has a strategically or economically good relationship. After the brutal assassination of dissident and journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, which was in all likelihood ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Trump shrugged off all questions from the press.

In addition, after the assassination of Khashoggi sparked outrage among U.S. lawmakers from both parties, Trump bypassed Congress to push through a billion-dollar deal to sell precision-guided missiles and other high-tech weapons to the kingdom. Later on in an interview, the president boasted to journalist Bob Woodward about the crown prince: “I saved his ass,” and “I was able to get Congress to leave him alone. I was able to get them to stop.”

‘Unfair’ Agreements

A key point in Trump’s 2016 campaign promises was that he would withdraw the United States from several “unfair” agreements and renegotiate the terms of the agreements to get better deals instead. He most definitely fulfilled the first part of the election promise and very quickly left the Paris climate agreement, the Iran nuclear deal, the INF nuclear agreement with Russia, several major trade agreements and several U.N. agencies. Nevertheless, apart from some trade agreements, nothing else has replaced these agreements.

In fact, Washington remains isolated on a number of issues and is not even sitting at the negotiating table when the world discusses climate and health, among other topics. The United States is no longer a key player in Syria and other areas of conflict. Despite warnings from the NATO secretary general and senior Republican senators, in November Trump announced further troop reductions in Iraq and Afghanistan, whose numbers are indeed already modest. The president’s decision does not seem founded on strategic considerations, but rather on the America First doctrine and a belief that you can run foreign policy like a business.

Efforts to normalize relations between Israel and a number of Arab countries have been one of the few foreign policy areas the Trump administration has actively pursued. One can hardly criticize that Israel, with its recent Bahrain, UAE and Morocco accords, is expanding its circle of neighbors who acknowledge that they no longer want Israel deleted from the world map. Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the fact that this has happened at the expense of the Palestinians, Western Sahara and several activists in the Arab world. The agreements were reached under pressure or with promises of military and financial support, which will strengthen authoritarian leaders and shut down the debate about basic civil rights in the region.

In Sudan, which is fighting a fierce battle to steer in the direction of democracy, the United States made it a requirement that the Sudanese government enter into an agreement with Israel before the U.S. would lift decades-old and economically catastrophic sanctions. The normalization agreement signed in October could make the new leadership unpopular, lead to instability and worst case scenario jeopardize the transition to a civilian government.

It is evident that Trump had no patience for the long haul, which is necessary to reach peace initiatives and conduct diplomacy. The efforts in North Korea never managed to be much more than a series of “historic” photos of Trump and Kim Jong Un, smiling as they cross the border between North and South Korea. When a final agreement could not be reached at the third summit — something that normally takes years of diplomatic negotiations — the American president lost interest and the dialogue stopped. Kim has since announced that he intends to expand the country’s stockpile of nuclear weapons.

The Unilateralist

It is certainly not an exaggeration to state that Trump has been uninterested in multilateral cooperation; most clearly, he has strongly downgraded and at times actively opposed the U.N. It probably also did not help the relationship that Trump’s speech before the General Assembly in 2018 drew laughter, as he boastfully claimed that his government in less than two years had achieved more than any other government in U.S. history. Trump has withdrawn the United States from UNESCO, the UNHCR, the U.N. Human Rights Council and the World Health Organization. Domestically, he has also downgraded the position as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, which is no longer of cabinet status.

China, on the other hand, has done its part to fill the void left by the United States, and has succeeded in getting several key posts occupied by Chinese officials and influencing the debate in the U.N. in its favor. Where China until recently focused on development and “soft” issues, it has now begun to interfere in security policy issues, such as Syria, and participate actively in U.N. peacekeeping operations. The United States has also lost its usual and almost natural leadership role in this area.


While there will be natural limitations to Biden’s foreign policy, there is no doubt that we will experience a more predictable policy. It is likely that Biden will reenter the U.S. into the Paris climate agreement and start renegotiations with Iran, more actively promote democracy and human rights, rebuild ties with the United States’ traditional allies and try to take the lead on the international scene.

Through 36 years in the Senate and eight years as Obama’s vice president, the newly elected president has knowledge of the inner workings of Washington and close contacts from Beijing to Berlin. He promotes classic American foreign policy based on national interests, which includes a world order governed by reasonably democratic principles and respect for human rights. He does this not only for ideological reasons but because it provides stability, which ultimately benefits U.S. economy and security policy.

There is no doubt that Biden’s team can restore the U.S.’s international recognition very quickly. The same thing happened under Obama following the George W. Bush era, which had damaged America’s reputation due to the unpopular Iraq war and the administration’s arrogant approach to both its allies and enemies. Many world leaders, not least among America’s closest partners in Europe, are probably looking forward to a more reliable president in Washington and a dialogue with substance and details following Trump’s simple rhetoric. The Foreign Service will probably also be strengthened again. At a minimum, Biden will probably fill the many vacancies in the State Department and the empty ambassadorial posts around the world.

The newly elected president has already nominated his ‘national security team’ — a team of experienced and respected career diplomats and civil servants who know each other and have worked together for years. Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton told CNN after the nominations that it was a cohesive and competent team. This even comes from a notorious hawk and unilateralist who belongs on the very far right side of the Republican Party when it comes to foreign policy.

Pompeo, on the other hand, has not surprisingly mocked his successors, stating that they live in a “fantasy world” and engage in “multilateralism for the sake of hanging out with their buddies at a cool cocktail party.” This comment actually says more about Pompeo than about the new team.

How far can Biden take his progressive climate policy, and how far is he going to make it on the global stage? The Constitution grants the U.S. president many foreign policy powers and the ability to set the general tone and choose his allies and enemies. However, Congress must approve foreign policy appointments, ratify international agreements and approve the sizable budget for foreign commitments. With the continuing, if not increasing, polarization in the country, it is possible that Republican members of Congress will do what they can to weaken Biden’s foreign policy.

In addition, there is no denying that the world is changing continuously and rapidly, and that it already looks different from when Biden was last in the White House under Obama just four years ago. The United States has already lost both influence and recognition. Currently, the country is trying to get a grip on the COVID-19 crisis, which fatally exposes the country’s weaknesses, as well as an ideological struggle that has divided the population on issues like race, inequality, migration, public health and much more.

When the United States constituted upward of 30% of the world economy and enjoyed respect for its competence and diplomatic capabilities, the world was more unipolar. Recently, in an article in Foreign Policy, Harvard professor Stephen M. Walt pointed out that the world is no longer as unipolar. He therefore thought that Biden and his team might have bitten off more than they can chew when they said that the United States should once again “sit at the end of the table” in international contexts, save women and girls in all corners of the world, fight corruption and inspire people to live in freedom.

Russia and China have a different agenda, have already moved ahead and have filled the void left by Trump in respect to several conflicts and global issues. U.S. hegemony in the world is not just threatened by other governments. Tech companies and mega-companies not only have a huge impact on the course of the world, but have caused the concepts of power and control to become more diffuse than ever before. If we were not already aware of it, Twitter’s recent ban of Trump’s account showed for that reason alone that leaders of the largest social media possess a special kind of power that the leaders of the world’s largest countries cannot even dream of.

Another question is whether the world can still trust and count on the United States. Is the world’s trust in the United States broken? Although we are now guaranteed four years under Biden and a presumably reliable foreign policy and willingness to cooperate and act on common values and principles, Washington’s allies cannot know for sure what will happen in four years. With over 74 million voters voting for Trump, it is inevitable that Trumpism will live on. It is impossible to rule out the possibility that either the outgoing president’s son, Donald Jr., or a similar populist will take power in four or eight years and once again will prioritize America First and withdraw the U.S. from some of the agreements that Biden will join or rejoin.

In conclusion, we should probably not expect world stability promoted by the United States. Nonetheless, one can hope for a significant change in America’s engagement in the world. Biden’s candidate to become the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a highly respected career diplomat and one of those who left the State Department under Trump. She believed the world’s diplomats had been marginalized and dishonored in recent years. A few weeks ago, she spoke volume telling them this: “America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back.”

*Editor’s Note: The original language publication of this article is accessible with a paid subscription.

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