To be great, America must be good

WASHINGTON • Four and a half months is not long, but President Donald Trump has accomplished an extraordinary amount in a short time. With shocking speed, he has wreaked havoc: hobbling America's core alliances, jettisoning American values and abdicating US leadership of the world. That's a whole lot of winning - for Russia and China.

This work began promptly on Jan 23, when the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, leaving key allies empty-handed, fearful of the strategic benefit that will inevitably accrue to China.

Then the secretary of state made plain that American values now take a back seat to security interests, even though those interests are enhanced by American partnerships with democracies that respect human rights and undermined by regimes that repress their citizens.

Witness the brutal crackdown on opposition elements in Egypt and Bahrain after Mr Trump told their leaders that the United States no longer cares how they treat their people.

The President's budget would slash funding for the US Agency for International Development and the State Department by nearly 30 per cent, rendering America's embassies vulnerable to attack and shuttering vital programmes that advance our interests. The budget would also starve the United Nations and its peacekeeping operations of essential support. This will condemn the US to pariah status at this important, if flawed, institution, where our leadership has been unrivalled.

At Nato, the President's reckless refusal to reaffirm America's commitment to the defence of our allies under Article 5, while hectoring them publicly about their military spending, made our allies conclude they must go it alone. Nothing could have thrilled President Vladimir Putin of Russia more, or done more damage to the strength and unity of the Western world.

And now the President has pulled the US out of the Paris climate agreement, putting us at odds with virtually the entire world. Europe and China stand together on the Paris accord, while the US is isolated.

This last, disastrous decision is the coup de grace for America's postwar global leadership for the foreseeable future.

It was not taken from us by any adversary, nor lost as a result of economic crisis or collapse of empire. America voluntarily gave up that leadership - because we quit the field.

How consequential is this choice? The network of alliances that distinguishes America from other powers and has kept our nation safe and strong for decades is now in jeopardy. We will see the cost when next we need the world to rally to our side.

Contrary to the view of this White House, we do not live in a zero-sum world. We live in a world where our security and prosperity are maximised when others enjoy the same. Today's threats - terrorism, nuclear proliferation, disease, climate change, violent cartels - are not amenable to simple military solutions, nor can they be tackled by any one country acting alone. They require effective collective action, and thus, willing partners.

When the US called after the Sept 11 attacks, Nato answered, and for nearly 16 years, the alliance has fought alongside us to defeat Al -Qaeda and strengthen the Afghan government. More than 65 countries joined the fight against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, and we rely on their enduring commitment to roll back terrorist havens. And when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and invaded Ukraine, the US led the effort to impose sanctions on Russia.

It won't be long before a fresh crisis arises. In 2014, I saw President Barack Obama successfully coax our allies to help contain and eradicate the Ebola outbreak in West Africa. If there is a flu pandemic that requires a similar coordinated international response, will our European friends heed Mr Trump's call?

Or if China takes aggressive action in the South China Sea, threatening our Asian allies as well as our own freedom of navigation, will our Western allies risk the economic repercussions of confronting China to stand beside an "America First" president who refuses to affirm our Nato commitments?

Our friends' profound disappointment with the US is a measure of the damage already done to America's global standing by this administration. Most Americans surely still see the benefits of the US being the strongest, most trusted and respected country in the world. So, we must take steps now to recover and regroup.

Congress must insist, on a bipartisan basis, that the US continue to play its traditional leadership role, by fully funding both defence and our foreign assistance programmes. Congress should ensure the US meets its obligations to the UN. It must also scrutinise foreign military sales to align our policies with our values.

Congressional delegations, governors and mayors can reassure our key allies that the American people still value them and that we do not intend to cede our global leadership. We must make clear to our foreign partners that this present policy is an aberration, not the new normal.

American corporations and civil society groups can assist by demonstrating that the US remains committed to its integration into the global economy and to our democratic principles. In the absence of White House leadership, the American people should act as informal ambassadors, via contacts through tourism, study-abroad programmes and cultural exchanges.

We can all contribute to showing other nations that we hold dear America's place at the forefront of moral and political leadership in the world. And we must remain steadfast until, once again, we have a president willing to lead in accordance with American interests, traditions and values.


•Susan E. Rice was the national security adviser from 2013 to 2017 and the United States ambassador to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 05, 2017, with the headline 'To be great, America must be good'. Print Edition | Subscribe