The World Sours on Washington

A Royal Belgian Air Force F-16 Falcon approaches a U.S. Air Force KC-135 Stratotanker refueling boom over Iraq in 2016. (Technical Sergeant Larry E. Reid, Jr./USAF)
Our credibility is waning, and we should care.

NRPLUS MEMBER ARTICLE P ew research published Tuesday reveals that American allies in key countries around the world have never had a lower opinion of the United States. The estimate of the United States among the people of the 13 wealthy foreign democracies tracked by Pew has tanked in the face of a wobbly American response to the coronavirus epidemic and the continuing political violence in American cities.

Donald Trump has . . . not helped.

There are a few different ways to respond to that. One is, “So what? Who cares? MAGA!” Another is: “Oh, great, now Parisian waiters are going to be even more snooty — thanks a lot, Agent Orange!” Those two responses cover a great deal of partisan territory, but neither is really very useful.

We might ask, instead: “What does it cost us?”

Answering that question requires us to agree about who us is. The very low opinion of the United States currently held by the Belgians does not cost the U.S. government much of anything, at least directly, and so it doesn’t cost Americans much as taxpayers. Unless it does.

Belgium is not a large or especially powerful country, but it has been an important U.S. ally in several theaters, recently in the campaign against the Islamic State. And they aren’t just writing checks and sending crates of steroidal waffles to the Americans doing all the fighting — the Belgians fought in Iraq and in Syria, conducting air strikes on Islamic State targets.

The Belgians and their Dutch allies did not do that because they had a high opinion of Barack Obama back in 2016, but because they believed that they were acting in accordance with their national interests. But that gets complicated, too: If you believe that the United States is a credible country — as reliable an ally as an enemy — then joining a U.S.-led coalition is a much easier sell than it would be if you believe that the United States is a bumbling giant whose responsible authorities cannot figure out how to organize an effective epidemic response — or a traffic stop. In that case, the diminishing credibility of the United States does cost us something.

It costs us something in trade, too. U.S. exports of commodities to China have not returned to pre-trade-war levels and may not, even if Beijing doesn’t interfere. That is because there are large transaction costs involved in establishing trade relationships, and nobody wants to invest in a deal that might be suddenly scuppered by a change in the American political wind. There are a lot of places to buy soybeans. Just as it costs something to lose our credibility as a military ally, it costs us something to lose our credibility as a trading partner. Credibility doesn’t go all at once — it waxes and wanes. Lately, our credibility has been waning.

And credibility — not popularity — is at the heart of the issue. Of course, there are many people in Europe and Asia who do not like Donald Trump. There are many people in the United States who do not like him, either. What is in question is not whether he is a likeable, admirable, or decent fellow, but whether the government he notionally heads can be expected to understand what needs doing and then do it. Franklin Roosevelt was a vicious son of a bitch, but people took him seriously and were right to do so.

How seriously do they take the United States right now? When Pew asked survey respondents to judge how five different entities — the United States, China, the European Union, their own countries, the World Health Organization — had performed in the coronavirus response, the United States came in dead last place in the estimate of every single public surveyed: Spain, Italy, Canada, the United Kingdom, Sweden, France, Japan, Australia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, and South Korea. On average, they were about five times as likely to approve of their own countries’ responses, four times as likely to approve of the WHO and EU performance, and two-and-a-half times as likely to judge China as having performed well. Maybe you think that the British and the Germans and the Australians and the South Koreans are wrong to think this, but they do think it, and that matters.

When respondents were asked about a selection of world leaders — Angela Merkel, Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, and Donald Trump — they overwhelmingly ranked the German chancellor as the most trusted. Do you even have to ask who came in last place? Here is a hint: It wasn’t Emmanuel Macron, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, or Xi Jinping. Two of those guys run gulags, one of them is a French socialist who is currently more popular in Lebanon than at home, and the other one is Boris Johnson.

America first!” they say. I agree — the American government’s duty is to the American people, not to Belgian public opinion. That is not in dispute. But real, practical, nuts-and-bolts American interests are deeply enmeshed with our national standing in the world, the cooperation we receive from other nations, and the terms on which such cooperation is secured. This isn’t a question of cosmopolitan status anxiety. It is a question of how we fight wars and thrive economically. Maybe you think we wouldn’t miss the Belgians very much, but you’d be wrong. We’d have missed them in Iraq and Syria, just as we would miss Japan and South Korea in our ongoing confrontation with China.

Credibility is a valuable commodity. It takes a long time to accumulate, and there is a heavy price to pay for squandering it.

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