America’s leadership in the world is being squandered, not because the nation’s core values are flawed or because its economic and military strength is declining. The decay in U.S. international influence is being caused by the unilateralist, nationalist path taken by President Donald Trump.
An alternative model to the current dangerous direction of U.S. national security and foreign policy can be found in the U.S. experience in the Balkans beginning in 1995.
At the height of America’s global power and influence in the 1990s, it faced a crisis in Europe as Yugoslavia broke apart. The U.S.-led international engagement in the former Yugoslavia from 1995 until 2008 rejuvenated American leadership in Europe, brought peace and stability to the war-torn Balkans, and set the seven new nations born from the demise of Yugoslavia on the path toward democracy.
To achieve this success, the U.S. assumed a leadership role in cooperation with strong democratic nations in Europe. Determined diplomacy, framed by the principles of democracy, was the driving force of American policy. The careful use of military forces from the NATO alliance reinforced diplomacy in the region.
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American leadership in the Balkans also featured extensive cooperation with the United Nations, NATO, the European Union and other international bodies. These organizations gave international legitimacy to U.S. policy, spread the costs of engagement and fulfilled important functions in the region during and after the conflicts.
Trump has discarded most of the approaches that were so effective in the Balkans. By downgrading the importance of democratic values and human rights in foreign policy, his administration has weakened a critical source of American influence and created confusion about who are its friends and who are its enemies.
The president often dismisses diplomacy in favor of unilateral military threats. He has marginalized an already weak secretary of state and slashed the State Department’s budget and professional staffing. Trump has called NATO “obsolete,” and he treats it as irrelevant, while going out of his way to offend critical European allies.
His public attacks on the U.S. election process and vital institutions such as the intelligence community, the Justice Department and FBI, and the free and independent press undermine domestic and international confidence in American democracy and play into the hands of its critics and enemies.
The negative effects of the Trump presidency on U.S. influence abroad are beginning to show. In London, public hostility to him makes a presidential visit there unwelcome. Breaking with allies, he has forfeited U.S. leadership on renewable energy in favor of fossil fuels. Today, no foreign political leader important to U.S. national security will go out on a limb for Donald Trump due to his negative image abroad.
The U.S. ambassador at the United Nations recently lowered herself to petty threats of withholding aid after a humiliating 128 nations voted against the administration’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.
Trump’s unilateral decision on Jerusalem removed any pretense of balance in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and gave a propaganda windfall to Islamic extremists. On Iran, other parties to the agreement are unwilling to follow the U.S. proposal to abandon the nuclear deal or support Trump’s encouragement of revolution in Iranian towns.
The regimes in Beijing and Moscow must be delighted with the uncertainty in South Korea and Japan created by the constant personal threats and verbal bombast on social media from the president toward Kim Jong-un in North Korea.
Vladimir Putin joins a long line of Kremlin leaders determined to weaken NATO and discredit democracy throughout the world. Putin also must be ecstatic with the confusion in Washington and the strained relationship between the U.S. and Europe.
Restoring American leadership in international affairs is a critical priority for the United States. The model that achieved peace and stability in the former Yugoslavia is vastly superior to the current course. It is a path out of confusion, reaction and danger in national security and foreign policy. And it is that path —sooner rather than later — that could restore badly needed American influence in the world.
James W. Pardew has been a diplomat, international negotiator and U.S. Army intelligence officer. He was deeply involved in resolving crises in the Balkans and was ambassador to Bulgaria. He is the author of “Peacemakers: American Leadership and the End of Genocide in the Balkans” (University of Kentucky Press) and will deliver the Vince Davis Lecture at 7 p.m. Feb. 1 at the W.T. Young Library Auditorium. He will also lecture at Transylvania University at 7 p.m. Jan. 31.