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Trump Returns To The U.N. This Week Facing Growing Unease About U.S. Leadership

President Trump speaks before the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2018. He'll address the assembly for the third time this week amid concerns about the role of U.S. leadership in the world.
John Moore
Getty Images
President Trump speaks before the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 25, 2018. He'll address the assembly for the third time this week amid concerns about the role of U.S. leadership in the world.

President Trump will return to the world's biggest stage this week to address heads of state at a time when U.S. global leadership is seen as waning.

When he takes the stage at the United Nations General Assembly for the third time on Tuesday, Trump is expected to "affirm America's leadership role" and "underscore that America is a positive alternative to authoritarianism," said a senior administration official.

Leaders will be closely watching how he addresses global concerns about the U.S. trade battle with China and insecurity over the Persian Gulf as confidence in his strategy falters.

During last year's speech, many of those same leaders appeared to laugh when Trump boasted that his administration "has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country."

John Feeley, who served as U.S. ambassador to Panama until last year, called it a painful moment that reflected America's decline from the "undisputed top dog" on the world stage.

"What it means is that the United States is not perceived as being led by somebody who — he's still very, very powerful — they take completely seriously," Feeley said.

The idea that U.S. global leadership is on the decline should be no surprise. Trump arrived in Washington promising supporters he'd put "America first" and not "be president of the world." He has delivered on those pledges in many ways — shrinking the diplomatic corps and pulling out of both the Paris climate accord and the proposed 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement.

A 25-nation survey by the Pew Research Center last year found a median of just 27% of people outside the United States had confidence Trump would "do the right thing in world affairs."

And a new survey of 50 former U.S. ambassadors and senior national security officials by the Global Situation Room public relations firm finds that top diplomats from Republican and Democratic administrations almost unanimously feel U.S. influence has declined under Trump.

Ninety-two percent of those surveyed said U.S. adversaries have grown stronger.

Ivo Daalder, who served as the U.S. ambassador to NATO from 2009 to 2013, said the United States is not in the places it needs to be.

He quoted George Shultz, who served as secretary of state during the Reagan administration and who compared diplomacy to gardening. A healthy garden, he would say, needs regular watering and weeds pulled before they grow out of control.

"And that's true for diplomacy," Daalder said. "You've got to go. You've got to be in the countries. You've got to understand what they're doing. You've got to spend time talking to people and measuring their concerns and getting an understanding of what drives them so that you can reach compromises and negotiate deals and exert American influence."

Some diplomats have bristled at Trump's apparent affection for authoritarian leaders such as North Korea's Kim Jong Un and Russia's Vladimir Putin while treating traditional allies in Europe more like adversaries.

Trump has embraced his lack of popularity in Europe. During a recent campaign rally in North Carolina, he boasted about how he has pressured European leaders to contribute money to NATO defense funds, saying that this has made former President Barack Obama more liked in Germany.

"He's got to be," Trump told the enthusiastic crowd. "I'm making people pay their bills. He's got to be. You know the day that I'm more popular than him, I'm not doing my job."

Brett Bruen, who served as the White House director of global engagement in the Obama administration and now leads Global Situation, said concerns raised by top U.S. diplomats reflect how bad they feel the problem has become.

"It's easy to argue they have sour grapes, that there was some personal concern that they were expressing," Bruen said. "But you know diplomats — having served alongside them for a decade and a half — are not the folks who are going to, by their nature, stand up and speak out. They're used to speaking on behalf of their government."

In some ways, leaders are moving on without Trump. There will be two high-level meetings on climate change and universal health care at the 74th United Nations General Assembly. Trump is expected to have little to do with either.

Jeffrey Feltman, a former U.S. undersecretary-general for political affairs and former chief foreign policy adviser to U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres, said leaders in France and Germany are trying to renew the multilateral system and combat the isolationism of the U.S. and other countries.

"I don't know how effective this will be, but it's an example of how some of our traditional allies are organizing themselves in response to the feeling that the United States, the U.K., that other sort of major engines in the U.N. system no longer are pressing the accelerator," said Feltman, who is now a fellow at the Brookings Institution.

It's not all Trump's fault, said John Simon, who served as U.S. ambassador to the African Union. He said that while the Trump administration has failed to maintain important alliances with traditional allies, the American public has also grown tired of the burdens of American leadership.

Simon said the solution is not just changing the president but helping people understand why global leadership is important to upholding American values.

"Part of the reason the president is the president is because he articulated a vision of the United States in the world that was somewhat at odds with our traditional role as a leader on the world stage."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.