American prestige hits rock bottom

As European Union countries revive their economies and reopen their borders after months of coronavirus restrictions, they are considering blocking Americans from entering because the United States has failed to control the spread of COVID-19.

That prospect, which would lump American visitors in with Russians and Brazilians as unwelcome, would be the most drastic sign of what a slow, steady decline of American power and respect in the world looks like.

We are now feared for the wrong reasons. How the U.S. has handled the coronavirus – more than 2.3 million cases and upward of 120,000 deaths, surpassing the number of American deaths in WWI – suggests that we are incompetent and unhealthy. America, once beckoning and welcoming, strong and confident, has lost its reputation in the global community.

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When Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaThe Memo: Trump grows weak as clock ticks down How Obama can win back millions of Trump voters for Biden Biden taps Obama alums for high-level campaign positions: report MORE was president in 2016, the Pew Research Center found that half or more of people polled in 15 of 16 major countries around the world expressed confidence in “the American leader.” Those were the good old days.

A year later, our new president had quickly become an object of scorn and derision. “Although he has only been in office a few months, Donald Trump’s presidency has had a major impact on how the world sees the United States,” Pew found. “Trump and many of his key policies are broadly unpopular around the globe, and ratings for the U.S. have declined steeply in many nations.” 

A Pew survey of 37 nations found that a median of just 22 percent had confidence in Trump to do the right thing on international affairs. “This stands in contrast to the final years of Barack Obama’s presidency, when a median of 64% expressed confidence in Trump’s predecessor to direct America’s role in the world,” Pew noted.   

What remained constant, even in the early Trump days, was the view from abroad that despite our government, the American people were still worthy of praise for our culture and civil liberties, our innovation and entrepreneurship. Our soft power still had resonance.

Sadly, that distinction would also begin to erode. By midway through Trump’s first term, America’s standing in the world was falling, particularly in Europe as countries expressed concern about how America treated its own citizens and about our seeming lack of interest in the world at large.

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Views shifted most notably in France, Germany, Poland, Spain and the United Kingdom — five countries that have been surveyed since 2008. Among these countries, more now say the U.S. government does not respect the personal freedoms of its people (a median of 57 percent) than say it does (40 percent).

At the same time, many expressed frustration about America’s role in the world and said they have little confidence in President TrumpDonald John Trump Trump responds to calls to tear down monuments with creation of 'National Garden' of statues Trump: Children are taught in school to 'hate their own country' Trump accuses those tearing down statues of wanting to 'overthrow the American Revolution' MORE to do the right thing in world affairs, according to a new Pew Research Center survey of 25 nations.

It is no surprise that Europe is wary of America given the NATO-bashing that this administration has done, the sour relationships between Trump and many European leaders and recent threats by the president to take more troops out of Germany.

But what is most shocking is the degree to which Europeans are now looking to China for support. In a new survey done by German polling firm Korber, Germans are now equally divided on whether Washington or Beijing is the more important partner, with 37 percent choosing the United States and 36 percent China. This represents a significant shift from last September, when the same survey showed a clear U.S. advantage of 27 percentage points over China.

Which brings us back to the pandemic. If Europe determines that Americans are not welcome, we will find ourselves at a loss when it comes to everything from security to tourism, trade to international student exchanges. 

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International student visits to the United States generate money and good will. The number of international students in the United States set an all-time high in the 2018/19 academic year, the fourth consecutive year with more than one million international students. According to data from the U.S. Department of Commerce, international students contributed $44.7 billion to the U.S. economy in 2018, an increase over the previous year.

With many states in the United States suffering from increased community spread of the virus, colleges and universities are still trying to figure out whether or not to open and when. Overseas students may see the United States as an unsafe destination and look for alternative institutions in Asia. Long-term, that means less understanding of American life and an economic loss.

If U.S. airlines cannot land in Berlin or Paris, a large percentage of scholars and experts will not attend conferences and events where much of the learning happens outside formal sessions in the building of one-on-one relationships. Track II diplomacy, which often supports U.S. foreign policy through side conversations between Americans and those overseas, would cease.

There is also a morale factor that is not always easy to measure when you think of cultural relations. At some point, Americans will feel ashamed and alone —outcasts in a closely-knit world where technology, travel and trade move markets, goods and people. The virus will end, but a global cultural quarantine may linger, and that would sets back years of exchanges and confidence building among judges, teachers, businesses, artists and writers.

So what can be done?

This is the moment to create a message campaign from a coalition of artists, foundations and non-governmental organizations to implore our friends and allies not to lock us out. Give us an opportunity to pull together a sensible team of public health experts, foreign and domestic policy thinkers, and wise moral voices to show our better selves.

In five months, we will elect a president and, hopefully, resurrect our public affairs and public diplomacy to work with our embassies in Europe and around the world to reengage with people.

America is still the land that welcomed Europe’s tired and poor, yearning to be free. Now let’s hope they will return the favor.

Tara D. Sonenshine is former U.S. under secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs and is currently a fellow in public diplomacy at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.