The World Sees a Diminished America

While there is hope that President Trump will end the bloody years of U.S. adventurism abroad, the initial shock from his victory could diminish America’s standing in the world, says ex-CIA analyst Paul R. Pillar.

By Paul R. Pillar

The impact of the election result on the standing of the United States in the world has too many aspects to encapsulate or even, in this early stage of shock, to comprehend.

This is particularly so with a president-elect who will have to construct a foreign policy largely unguided by previous thinking on his part that exhibits consistency and coherence beyond a few themes such as discontent with free-loading allies, admiration for powerful autocrats, and conceiving of economic relations in zero-sum mercantilist terms.

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, N.Y., Sept. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

President Barack Obama delivers remarks during his address to the United Nations General Assembly in New York, N.Y., Sept. 23, 2013. (Official White House Photo by Amanda Lucidon)

But we can already note some aspects of America’s global standing that are related to the election itself and the campaign that preceded it.  These aspects involve damage that already has been done, and that the result of the election punctuates and extends.

Some of the damage stems from the xenophobic content of Mr. Trump’s campaign, with the disparagement, or what many overseas will take to be disparagement, of major parts of humanity, including among others the nearly quarter of the world’s population that is Muslim.  That such a campaign was a winning campaign reveals the underlying views to be held by much more of America than the president-elect himself.

The extent to which those views are held by Americans who are deplorable or by Americans who are merely discontented and easy prey for such themes matters less to overseas observers than the content of the views themselves.

This pattern hits the American image hard in a place where it hitherto has looked rather good.  Many polls conducted overseas have yielded results that couple negative views of U.S. policies with positive feelings toward the American people.  Perhaps the latter part of such results will start to become less pronounced.

A Procedural Black Eye

Then there is the presidential selection process itself.  The election to the most powerful post in the world of someone who is, by temperament and experience, so manifestly unqualified to hold it will be taken by many as a failure of that process.

Donald Trump and Mike Pence during Day Three of the Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

Donald Trump and Mike Pence during Day Three of the Republican National Convention. (Photo credit: Grant Miller/RNC)

And Mr. Trump himself provided voluminous rhetoric during the campaign about how the process is “rigged,” how he would not accept an unfavorable outcome, and how if he won he would incarcerate his opponent, amid references to “Second Amendment solutions” and the like.  A casual foreign observer only needed to listen to Mr. Trump to conclude that America’s claim to having an admirable liberal democratic process for choosing its leaders is false.

A more careful, less casual, foreign observer might discount Mr. Trump’s rhetoric as campaign bombast but would notice other disturbing things about the election. It appears that Mrs. Clinton won a plurality of the popular vote, making this the second out of the last five U.S. presidential elections in which the popular vote winner was denied the White House.

Foreign observers might not appreciate the background to why the Electoral College exists, but the disconnect between votes cast and offices won is even more apparent with the routine and blatant gerrymandering, which has served as an incumbent protection device as well as enabling the Republican Party in recent years to hold a majority of seats in the House of Representatives even while losing in total votes to the Democrats.

On top of that are the comparably blatant efforts by one party to gain or hold office not just by winning votes but by suppressing voting by citizens deemed more likely to support the other party.  And on top of that in this election was the October surprise from the head of the top national law enforcement agency, a development that in an election this close could well have made a difference in the outcome.

All of this is prime material for anyone overseas wanting to disparage American democracy.  Regimes with that motivation have been having a field day.  Iranian propaganda writers have had an easy time, merely encouraging people to follow the U.S. election campaign on television.  Vladimir Putin didn’t need to interfere in the U.S. political process to diminish any image advantage it has over his own.

The fact that the side that benefited from things such as voter suppression and Comey’s surprise won the U.S. political contest is what extends into the future the already inflicted damage to the image of American democracy. That is in addition to this election demonstrating that in America, a xenophobic campaign is a winner.  A victory by Mrs. Clinton would have been seen overseas both as a repudiation of the xenophobia and as an overcoming by the political process of the irregularities.

If there is any possible offsetting advantage regarding what American democracy in action displays to others, it is that we will be spared seeing Republicans doing everything possible to frustrate a President Clinton’s ability to govern. The foreshadowing of such a scenario, had the election result gone the other way, was obvious. There was much talk of impeachment, which is supposed to be a remedy for high crimes and misdemeanors committed in office, before the target even took office or won an election to the office.

Victory for the Saboteurs

Also, as columnist Richard Cohen observed, Congressman Jason Chaffetz, “the chairman of what amounts to the Permanent Committee to Investigate Hillary (actually, the House Oversight Committee),” was promising before the election to conduct investigations “until the end of time or Fox News loses interest, whichever comes first.”

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS' "Face the Nation."

Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, appearing on CBS’ “Face the Nation.”

Perhaps most stunning were the promises, after Republican refusal all year even to consider President Obama’s nominee to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, to block anyone a President Clinton nominated to the court during an entire four-year term.

Such a position not only would have represented a new depth in governmental dysfunction but also a direct assault on the concept of an independent judiciary, which is one of the most important things that separate stable liberal democracies that operate with the rule of law from a lot of other less admirable countries that don’t. And this talk was coming not from Donald Trump but from the principal runner-up for the Republican nomination (Ted Cruz) and a previous presidential nominee (John McCain).

Of course, being “spared” sabotage and obstruction probably should not be considered an advantage when the alternative is to have the saboteurs running the whole show.

The defacement of American democracy, as well as the xenophobia, both of which are already unavoidably associated with Donald Trump’s presidency before he even takes the oath of office, have multiple and significant consequences for U.S. overseas interests, however difficult it may be to limn precise effects that will appear over the next four years.

The consequences will include degradation of any claim by the United States to leadership of inclusive, liberal democracies. They also will include weakening of political advantages — especially among disparaged or excluded populations and the governments that lead them — that the United States has traditionally enjoyed as an object of admiration and emulation. They include a reduction of confidence in, and support for, democracy itself.

Anything that weakens, or threatens to weaken, Americans’ own stable, inclusive democracy ought to be a source of dismay regardless of the repercussions overseas. But those repercussions are an added reason for the dismay.

Paul R. Pillar, in his 28 years at the Central Intelligence Agency, rose to be one of the agency’s top analysts. He is author most recently of Why America Misunderstands the World. (This article first appeared as a blog post at The National Interest’s Web site. Reprinted with author’s permission.) 

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14 comments for “The World Sees a Diminished America

  1. k
    November 17, 2016 at 9:16 pm

    what’s fun with pillar’s pieces is the fact that he treats everyone as thoughtless uninformed people incapable of analyzing, and people show him the contrary.

  2. AC
    November 14, 2016 at 12:27 am

    America is the new Rome and Trump is America’s Nero; playing the public like a fiddle while America burned.

  3. November 14, 2016 at 12:01 am

    Perhaps Mr. Pillar ought to worry a bit less about the U.S. government’s image abroad and worry a bit more about its image among its voters. Foreigners do not elect U.S. government officials; American voters do.

    Trump was a suitable vehicle for Americans to deliver a message of disgust with its political elites. Those elites may either shed tears or get on with the work of repairing the damage they have inflicted on the voters. Mr. Pillar has now shed his tears. I await his suggestions for repairing the damage. We know where we’ve been, Mr. Pillar; where should we go next?

    Since he is so certain that Mr. Trump’s election was the byproduct of America’s uneducated populace, perhaps Mr. Pillar will support expense-free higher education for every American?

  4. Karl Kolchack
    November 13, 2016 at 11:24 pm

    Guess what world? If after Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Syria and Yemen–not to mention the CIA overthrow of democratic governments in Chile and Iran–you hadn’t figured out what a monstrous country America really is, I am truly amazed that the election of a buffoonish, demagogic reality television star has finally caused it to sink in.

    The next time America wants your government to help it invade, bomb, drone, torture, assassinate or launch a coup somewhere, do us all a favor and demand your feckless “leaders” just say no. And demand all of those American military bases be removed from your territory, for they are by far the biggest threat to your precious freedoms.

  5. FobosDeimos
    November 13, 2016 at 7:48 pm

    America’s “standing” in the world is already at sub-zero levels. Except for the handful of plutocrats and bureaucrats who run many of the countries of the world, the vast majority of mankind just wishes the US would leave us all alone. Close all of your foreign bases, reduce military spending to 20% of its present level and re-build your own country.

  6. John P
    November 13, 2016 at 6:37 pm

    Trump to me is a narcissist. His actions seem to be a ploy motivated to sucker any fool or fools he is addressing at the moment and draw them in. As for women, I don’t see what looks like true affection between he and his wife when before the camera, it looks more like an act. His business properties in the hands of others will be in the sights of China, Russia and others if he doesn’t please them, and he will be aware of it, how could he not.
    I’m very upset that I’ve heard he is going to recognize an Israeli capital in Jerusalem, completely contrary to international law and bound to make America more disliked in the Middle East.
    I would love to know what a psychoanalyst thinks of his behaviour !

  7. Zachary Smith
    November 13, 2016 at 2:53 pm

    The World Sees a Diminished America

    This may sound cynical, but I don’t much care about what the furriners think; my concern is about having to live in the “Diminished America” Mr. Pillar speaks of.

    As for Trump dumping on Islam with his rants, I’d suppose the Muslim nations would prefer that to Obama’s bombing the hell out of them.

    Finally there is “Comey’s surprise”. In my opinion the most important part of that was his decision to give Hillary a mild tongue lashing and nothing else during the first “investigation”. The arrogant woman had demonstrated total contempt for security rules, and he gave her a Get Out Of Jail card instead of recommending/demanding Hillary never again be trusted with classified documents.

    • Joe Tedesky
      November 13, 2016 at 11:40 pm

      Zachary, about that Comey business, if anything what Comey did upset a lot of people by his going so easy on Hillary. When it comes right down to it Hillary should have never set up her private computer servers in the first place. Too many people lose sight of the fact, that by Hillary breaking security protocol she committed a crime of espionage. So Zachary when I saw what you wrote here I just had to write something in agreement with your comment since I was also basically thinking the same thing.

  8. Linda Furr
    November 13, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    Thank you, Exiled, Cosmos, Sam and Herr for helping me breathe again after Pillar’s article!

  9. Gregory Herr
    November 13, 2016 at 1:58 pm

    I should think the world has been for some time now interchangeably scratching their heads, recoiling in horror, or laughing disdainfully at the show runners in Washington. Exiled is right about what should have been the major issue and Chris is right about the policy disasters and missed opportunities. Sam is right about the foreign image of American democracy.
    Diminished from what Mr. Pillar?

  10. Sam
    November 13, 2016 at 1:48 pm

    This article is extremely biased. Clinton’s warmongering zionism and conspiracy against Sanders were neither “repudiation of xenophobia” or an “overcoming of irregularities” of elections, and were the major factor in her loss, not “voter suppression and Comey’s surprise.”

    The foreign image of “American democracy” is already quite correct: a fake democracy in decline, hopelessly corrupted by oligarchy, which has never “enjoyed admiration and emulation” or leadership among “liberal democracies.” It merely abused its economic advantages to push around others. It already has the most corrupt judiciary in the world, nothing but a subsidiary of oligarchy. What liberal democracy threatens to militarily attack the Hague if its war criminals are prosecuted? Any “reduction of confidence in democracy itself” is due to that corruption, represented by Clinton even more than Trump. The US is a fine example to the rest of the world of how not to structure a democracy: when you write your constitution, don’t make the mistake we made: keep money out of elections and mass media. Probably most of Europe and Asia are much relieved and amused that the bully boy on the block has taken a fall.

  11. November 13, 2016 at 1:10 pm

    Pillar is always interesting but and I’m glad Consortium publishes him. This notion that “the world” has certain views coming from someone enmeshed in the FP policy world usually means one thing, i.e., what the top leaders and oligarchs in the world think. What these people want is a U.S. that is not just deeply engaged but the center of a global Empire that maintains a “Pax Americana” through the use of military force primarily so these rich elites can continue dominating their own societies. That is the great virtue of Empire. The U.S. agrees to support these oligarchs through central bank cooperation agreements, military guarantees and, since Pillar is CIA (yes, the CIA has liberals), covert/black ops on any threats to “world order.”

    Now this is a policy some of us on the left soundly oppose. We don’t want a world ruled by Washington. In my case, that is because I know how deeply corrupt that ruling elite actually is. Many of those that favor Empire are true-believers but most are in it for the power, the money and other satisfactions that come from being high-status men and women. There is no interest in the well-being of people around the world or the American people. The interests of these oligarchs are in direct opposition to the interests of the average person around the world at this time.

    Now, the peace that was created after WWII and enforced by civilized arrangements during the Cold War brought increased trade, security, and the growth of civilized institutions around the world and this was a good thing–until the Cold War ended. I won’t go into all the policy disasters that followed and opportunities missed but now it’s too late for a Pax Americana because that Pax is no longer based on diplomacy but on War! Inc. and a Hilary Clinton election would have brought it out in the open with her face on it. As bad as Trump is we know we wants to roll the Empire back a bit and give us some room to rethink and hopefully throw out some of Pillar’s friends and bring in something different. Now it could be worse than Bush/Clinton/Bush/Obama but I doubt it.

  12. exiled off mainstreet
    November 13, 2016 at 12:22 pm

    The fact that the favoured candidate was a war criminal based on her Libya record and advocated a no-fly zone against the Russians on behalf of el qaeda types the yankee imperium was funding should have been the major issue. This damaged prestige, and it is certainly a net positive that she failed to achieve office. We can breathe easier or perhaps we can breathe at all the next four years because she is out. The saboteurs saved the world from an absolutist imperium which was a threat to survival.

    • turboglo
      November 13, 2016 at 4:14 pm

      If you think for a moment that the Empire is dead, or even diminished, under a Trump presidency, it is clear that Donald Trump sold you the Brooklyn Bridge.

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