No doubt various world leaders felt relieved to speak once again with a coherent and knowledgeable American leader. Even though members of the Biden team are locked out of the State Department—in a normal transition, the departing administration would be helping set up postelection courtesy calls on secure lines—it was probably nice for them to have ordinary conversations with foreigners again too.
And yet there was something misleading about all of these statements and compliments, for after the Trump era, there can be no return to normal. None of America’s relationships, with either our friends or our enemies, is the same as it was four years ago. None of the major diplomatic institutions, international or domestic, is the same either. Some on the Biden team, veterans of the Obama administration, will be tempted to restart relationships and reboot old plans as if nothing has happened. That would be a mistake.
Since 2016, America’s international reputation has been transformed. No longer the world’s most admired democracy, our political system is more often perceived as uniquely dysfunctional, and our leaders as notably dangerous. Poll after poll shows that respect for America is not just plummeting, but also turning into something very different. Some 70 percent of South Koreans and more than 60 percent of Japanese—two nations whose friendship America needs in order to push back against Chinese influence in Asia—view the U.S. as a “major threat.” In Germany, our key ally in Europe, far more people fear Trump than fear Russia’s Vladimir Putin, China’s Xi Jinping, or North Korea’s Kim Jong Un.
And no wonder: We live in a world where all news is accessible to everyone. Nothing that has happened over the past four years is a secret—not Trump’s ceaseless dishonesty; not his displays of ignorance; not his self-dealing and his nepotism; not his inject-disinfectants-to-knock-out-the-coronavirus moment, a story that appeared in hundreds of languages all over the world; not the grotesque spectacle of his refusal to acknowledge the election result. “Trump supporters head to the streets as he pushes false election claims,” declared a headline in the Gulf Times, a newspaper based in Qatar. The China Daily , the Chinese Communist Party’s main English-language publication, solemnly reported that Republican senators are calling for Biden to get security briefings. The president of Poland—a nationalist who flew to Washington, D.C., to be photographed with Trump during his own campaign—appears genuinely confused about who has won, and keeps telling people that the U.S. election is not over yet.
After Trump has provided the world with this theatrical coup-that-is-not-a-coup, it is naive to imagine that the U.S. can promote democracy or the rule of law with the confidence that it did in the past. For four years, our president has openly defied many of the values we used to put at the center of our foreign-policy rhetoric. And yes, everybody has noticed. Americans may have found the spectacle of Trump trying to blackmail the Ukrainian president into launching a fake political investigation of his opponents exotic. Ukrainians found it … familiar. The next time a senior American official comes to town and tells the Ukrainian government that its International Monetary Fund loan depends on enforcing laws against corruption, why shouldn’t the Ukrainians laugh?