It’s a 29, maybe 30, second-long video clip, and for the past few days, it’s been making its rounds online. President Trump stands front and center, wearing a stretched smile and an ironed suit, with a green-patterned wall glimmering behind. The golden hall around him is cavernous and official-looking; seats are full as the United Nations General Assembly convenes for its annual meeting at the organization’s headquarters in New York City.
The President is just a few lines into his speech when he says, "In less than two years, my administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country.”
There’s a pause, then: “So true.” Delegates laugh in the background.
Trump breaks some of the awkwardness, saying, "I didn't expect that reaction, but that's OK," as more leaders laugh and applaud. This moment, however small, however exaggerated online, does hold enormous significance in gauging American standing internationally.
Opinions on the clip are divided: to Northwestern Political Union’s Dominic Bayer, the laughter is less of a reflection of the United States as a country and more of a response to the president’s personality. “I think it’s just a funny little bit of news. I wouldn’t see it as too significant,” said Bayer.
Conversely, Legal Studies Professor Ian Hurd called it a “nice little illustration of the low status in which Trump is seen around the world.”
Hurd sees the current White House as “chaotic and dysfunctional and counterproductive,” citing corruption, patronage and Trump’s withdrawal from traditional alliances and institutions.
Under his administration, the United States has strayed from longtime allies in Western Europe, as well as in Canada and the rest of the world, and humored North Korea, Russia and others with which tensions have typically been strained.
His list of international controversies is long: renegotiating NAFTA, beginning a trade war with China, leaving the Paris Climate Agreement, moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and so forth, all falling within the bounds of Trump’s dissatisfaction with “globalism.”
According to Merriam-Webster, the term means treating the world, rather than each country individually, as a “sphere for political influence.” (It’s also worth noting the anti-semitic background of the term.) American foreign policy in the decades since World War II has been decidedly internationalist, but is this decline in favor of Trump-style populism?
The president’s thoughts may be a global trend. Northwestern Political Union Director of Finance Sachin Shukla said, “Before Trump, there was Brexit … [This movement] was happening before Trump got elected, but Trump’s election certainly was a catalyst.”
Shukla characterized the president's actions as a “pullback” from the international community. He said Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, pulled out of military engagements with a goal of “reducing the United States’ damage to the rest of the world.”
In contrast, according to Shukla, President Trump may be “get[ting] rid of the damage done to us by the rest of the world, by costs we impose on ourselves, by foreign aid, signing onto different pacts … obeying the United Nations and the international criminal court.”
This pullback has its academic names, such as “isolationism,” or maybe “America First,” but could withdrawing from the world stage in these ways decrease the United States’ international influence? The strength of American leadership may stem from its imposing military and powerful economy, but it's also historically been developed through diplomacy and involvement in international politics.
Since the establishment of the United Nations after World War II, the United States has played a significant role in decision-making through its place as one of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Dogged by controversy, the international body has nonetheless intervened in conflicts such as the Korean War and the Gulf War and has authorized over 70 completed and ongoing peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries.
What happens if we begin to disengage?
Professor Hurd argues that by stepping back, and away from alliances and global institutions, the president is diminishing our influence.
“[He] decided that American influence in the world, through alliances and institutions, is a bad thing. So he’s taking that apart,” Hurd said.
Shukla’s take considers Trump’s unpredictability as influential in itself. “People have to pay more attention to America in particular rather than just the West, or just NATO,” he said.
Whether the current turn inward will continue depends on the next presidential election in 2020.
"If Trump is re-elected, then this whole trend continues, and I think that’ll be really interesting, because if he doesn’t get re-elected, this may just be a blip on the radar,” Shukla said.
Whether current foreign policy is a deviation from the normal or the beginning of a new era remains to be seen.