Leaders must step up as the United States steps aside

By Dan Restrepo, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

Over the past days, President Donald Trump changed the world. Twice.
Sadly, neither was for the better and neither was the faux-progress he was selling after his made-for-TV summit with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
Both changes renounced U.S. global leadership and each significantly upped the ante for those –inside the United States and around the globe– who believe in an open, inclusive, and just world.
The seismic changes started before the President ever left North America.
With his G7-related tantrums and misguided tariffs against Europe, Canada, and Mexico – President Trump surrendered a mantle forged by, at least, his 13 immediate predecessors in office dating back to Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Simply put, the President of the United States no longer aspires to be the “Leader of the Free World.”
For 75 years, successive presidents of the United States – from across a broad ideological spectrum – have valued working with others to advance common economic and security interests.
To that end, they built and maintained a series of international relationships and institutions centered on the notion that countries, and particularly like-minded democratic ones, can and should cooperate for mutual benefit.
The rules they laid out not only helped guide countries through massive geopolitical shifts, they also laid out rules that transnational businesses have relied on and thrived under for decades.  
In President Trump’s zero-sum world where all interactions have only a winner and a loser such cooperation simply makes no sense.
Faced with a series of global threats—including from Russia (security) and China (security and commercial)—President Trump appears to believe the United States will be stronger alone than accompanied by like-minded countries.  
Rather than cooperate with Europe and our North American neighbors to confront those and other threats, he chose to attack them. Attacks that pile on to his disparagement of the most successful security alliance in history–the North Atlantic Treaty Organization–and his repeated nativist and protectionist rants against Mexico and Canada.
But President Trump did not stop there in tearing down pillars of U.S. global leadership.
Meeting with Kim Jong Un–a murderous authoritarian–was not, of course, a renunciation of U.S. global leadership. Plenty of the president’s predecessors have sat across from equally despicable figures as the search for peace and stability often requires it.
The President’s complete and utter silence regarding human rights in North Korea–one of the world’s darkest places for basic individual freedoms–during his meeting, however, ceded important moral high ground. Moral high ground that has been–admittedly to differing degrees–a cornerstone of U.S. global leadership.
Moral high ground that the President had long-since abandoned in the U.S. domestic context given, for example, his racist “birther” campaign against his immediate predecessor and his refusal to denounce neo-Nazis and white supremacists for last summer’s deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.
But the abandonment of American values was not merely rhetorical or image-related. It has real-world security implications.
Ignoring North Korean human rights abuses sent Kim and his fellow despots around the world a dangerously destabilizing message: Not only will developing illegal weapons of mass destruction get you an audience with the President of the United States; it will be entirely cost-free regarding seemingly any level of repression back home.
The vacuums created by the President’s destructive week requires others to step up and fill the voids.
Politicians of all stripes in the United States must do so to make clear that neither America Alone nor Heartless America is who the United States is as a country.
Leaders in other countries need to step up to limit the harm done by those who promote a closed, disjointed, unjust world. And provide hope to those struggling against oppression everywhere that they have not been abandoned.  
But this challenge is not one simply to be left to governments and political figures. Civil societies around the globe must answer the call and so too must those who rely on a rules-based world to add value and generate wealth.
A leaderless, volatile world demands nothing less.


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