Over the summer, Donald Trump boasted to supporters, “We are so respected, you have no idea. How our nation has gone so far up in the eyes and the minds of the rest of the world.” As recently as two weeks ago, after leaders of U.S. allies mocked the American president in an unguarded moment, Trump added, “This country is so respected. And we were not respected four years ago. We were laughed at.”
This was, of course, the opposite of the truth. Since Trump took office, international support and respect for the United States has taken a sharp turn for the worse. Global confidence in our leadership was high during Barack Obama’s presidency, but it collapsed in 2017.
What’s more, the more international audiences see Trump and come to terms with his “America First” vision, the more our allies and partners grow alienated from the United States. The Associated Press reported the other day on China’s increased investment in diplomacy, as Beijing hopes to exploit the opportunity the Republican White House created.
Now the Chinese even have the world’s biggest diplomatic arsenal to draw from. China’s diplomatic network – including embassies, consulates and other posts – has overtaken that of the United States, according to the Lowy Institute, a Sydney-based think tank. Beijing has 276 diplomatic posts worldwide, topping Washington’s declining deployment by three posts, the institute found.
China’s growing diplomatic presence comes as Beijing is trying to expand its international footprint in places like resource-rich Africa or the strategic South China Sea, and to compete economically with Western countries, including with its much-ballyhooed Belt and Road Initiative that seeks to expand Chinese economic clout in places like Africa and Asia.
This isn’t a dynamic in which China is scrambling to keep up with the United States; it’s actually one in which China is making gains while the United States, under Trump’s leadership, is deliberately retreating. In practical terms, the Trump administration is shrinking its diplomatic footprint while abandoning international agreements, condemning international institutions, and rejecting the very idea of a rules-based world order.
If Beijing had written a script for the U.S. to follow, it’d look an awful lot like this one.
The AP quoted William Burns, president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former deputy secretary of state, saying, “We’ve entered an era in which diplomacy matters more than ever, on an intensely competitive international landscape. China realizes that and is rapidly expanding its diplomatic capacity. The U.S., by contrast, seems intent on unilateral diplomatic disarmament.”
Longtime readers may recall that throughout his presidency, Barack Obama at times seemed preoccupied with China’s attempts at expanding its spheres of influence – and the Democrat took more than a few steps to counter those efforts.
For Obama, U.S. trade policy was focused on countering China. U.S. policy in the arctic was about China. U.S. policy in the Caribbean was heavily influenced by China. U.S. policy towards India came against a backdrop of Chinese interest in the region.
In the Trump era, however, China’s influence is growing largely unchecked. Indeed, Trump seems eager to drive others into Beijing’s arms.
As the Republican alienates Latin America, for example, China is strengthening its ties in the region. While Trump expresses his contempt for the European Union, he’s also pushing China and the EU closer together. Even in the Middle East, Xi Jinping told members of the Arab League that China would like to form a strategic partnership to become “the keeper of peace and stability in the Middle East, the defender of equity and justice, promoter of joint development, and good friends that learn from each other,” (As Axios noted at the time, the rhetoric came with a pledge of $23 billion in loans and aid.)
And when Trump rejected the climate crisis as a “hoax” he’d prefer to ignore, it was Xi Jinping who appeared at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he presented his country “as a defender of economic globalization and an exemplar of international cooperation on issues like climate change.”
The week of Trump’s inauguration, The New Republic’s Jeet Heer wrote, “China is now closer to the international norm than the U.S. on such key issues as trade, climate change, and Israel-Palestine. Is America at risk of abdicating its international leadership role to China?”
Beijing is asking the same question, and it likes the apparent answer.