George W. Bush’s foreign policy was undoubtedly more catastrophic than Trump’s. The carnage he instigated still rages, and because he cloaked his war-making in the high-flown language of promoting democracy, he made a mockery of America’s messianic pretensions. Yet Trump’s brutishly transactional presidency has somehow done even more than Bush’s to erode American influence.
Matt Duss, chief foreign policy adviser to Senator Bernie Sanders, told me that in conversations with colleagues abroad, there was a sense that America lost its mind after 9/11 but then regained its footing with Obama. “Trump’s presidency has made clear to a lot of our partners, as I think it’s made clear to a lot of Americans, that these problems are much more deep-seated,” said Duss. “Because an America that elects a Trump can elect another Trump.”
In his first year in office, Obama was able to travel around the world repairing America’s global reputation — trips Republicans derided as part of an “apology tour.” But even if Biden were an Obama-like orator, neither speeches nor foreign visits would be enough to reverse the damage Trump has done to the idea of America.
As a senior national security adviser to Obama, Ben Rhodes helped plan the trips and write the speeches Obama used to reset America’s international relationships. Back then, he said, “Even if the Iraq war and the financial crisis had been body blows to American hegemony, I think there was still an underlying sense that the United States was at the center of a recognized international order, and that the United States stood for a set of values even if we betrayed them.”
Biden, said Rhodes, “is going to inherit a very different reality. Because the United States is no longer at the center of any international order, and the world no longer has any implicit trust that we stand for a set of values.”
So if America aspires to be an example to the world again, it will have to be a very different, humbler sort. The United States can’t go around lecturing anyone else about the inviolable importance of democratic norms and institutions. But in the best-case scenario, it might be able to show other countries how to come back from the brink of autocracy.
“America is now kind of a normal country like everybody else,” said Rhodes. We “can have the corrupt autocrat, with the son-in-law down the hall, in the highest office,” he said. “But if America can fix that, that’s both a model for other countries and a way for America to restore its standing.”