New global role for US president: From leader to outlier

Woodrow Wilson’s leadership helped end WWI, and Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership helped save the U.S. economy in the 1930s and subsequently defeat Germany and Japan in WWII. Since that time, American presidents have been called at home and abroad, “leader of the free world.” Presidents from Truman through Obama lived up to that designation by creating and sustaining a global system that protected American interests and values and expanded American and global prosperity. But President TrumpDonald John TrumpDavid Axelrod after Ginsburg cancer treatment: Supreme Court vacancy could 'tear this country apart' EU says it will 'respond in kind' if US slaps tariffs on France Ginsburg again leaves Supreme Court with an uncertain future MORE’s weekend in Paris was just the most recent demonstration that instead of being the leader of the free world, he is becoming its outlier.

Global leaders came to Paris to commemorate the centenary of the end of WWI. This commemoration had particular meaning given the recent re-emergence in Europe and elsewhere of the kind of economic and nationalist tensions that helped spark two world wars. As the leader of a country that had suffered from both wars, France’s President Macron invited leaders to Paris to commemorate not just the end of one tragedy, but also to consider how to avoid stumbling into another.

Previous American presidents would have seized the opportunity to use lessons of the past to promote actions to address problems of the present – and in so doing support America’s overriding interest in global peace and prosperity. 

But it was clear from Trump’s tweets and political rallies in the weeks leading up to the Paris events that rather than having learned lessons from WWI, he was seeking short-term political gain by stoking the forces of nationalism and fear.


The weather in Paris was as somber as the occasion, with gray skies and rain. Previous American presidents would have used the moody backdrop to reinforce visually the substance of their public comments. But while Trump’s European counterparts paid their respects to the fallen and made remarks on a rainy Saturday in France, Trump was out of view, with the White House saying bad weather kept him from visiting a cemetery of American war dead about 50 miles from Paris.

Trump appeared the next day and was one of some 70 world leaders at a ceremony in central Paris commemorating the end of WWI, although he chose to arrive separately, not walk with his counterparts. While most of the world leaders in Paris stayed for a conference to consider multilateral approaches to dealing with current global challenges, Trump flew home, tweeting divisively about the mid-term elections and fires in California.

Trump’s failure to seize the leadership opportunity in Paris is consistent with his isolating approach to foreign policy more generally. Rather than building global support for U.S. values and interests, the hallmark of Trump’s foreign policy is what he has taken the U.S. out of: He has taken the U.S. out of the global agreement for addressing climate change, out of the great power agreement for shutting down Iran’s nuclear program, and out of a regional trade agreement designed to counter China’s growing influence in Asia. All of these agreements continue to function, but without the U.S.

Meanwhile, Trump tweets insults at close allies, but fawns over the despots who run Russia and North Korea.

Trump’s go-it-alone policies and chaotic personality are distancing him and America from its long-standing democratic allies, who now consult each other more often than they do the Trump White House. Foreign publics also increasingly distrust Trump. An independent 2018 public opinion survey reported 70 percent of respondents in Europe and Latin America distrusted Trump, while only 27 percent trusted him.

Trump’s slogan of “America First” is in danger of becoming “America Alone.”

Having a president who is an outlier, not a leader, is not good for the American people. Global challenges in the 21st Century, from terrorism and WMD proliferation, to climate change, cybercrime, and pandemic disease, are becoming more complex and inter-connected. No nation, not even America, can deal successfully with such challenges alone. Like the American people, America’s allies would still prefer to address shared challenges by working with an America willing to play a leading role; nevertheless, they have demonstrated – by sustaining those agreements Trump has taken America out of – that they can and will work around an American president who does not wish to lead.

Trump would be well advised to learn some lessons from his Paris weekend, as well as from his predecessors, and recognize that America is better off with a president who helps lead a global community, not one who isolates himself from it.

If the American president does not lead, others, such as China, will – to the detriment of the American people.

Kenneth C. Brill was a career diplomat who served as an ambassador in the Clinton and Bush Administrations and a senior intelligence official in the Obama Administration.