The English philosopher John Donne wrote that “No man is an island entire of itself.” In this vein, the United States cannot be great again without the help of others. America needs friends.
This is especially true in a world where power has descended to regional geopolitical alignments. As powerful as it is, Washington cannot effectively exert its influence internationally without the cooperation of regional partners: NATO allies in Europe; Israel, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia in the Middle East; and India, Japan and South Korea in Asia.
Harvard political scientist Joe Nye presciently has observed that power today is exercised in two forms: hard and soft. The core elements of a country’s power —its military and its economy — can be used either to threaten an adversary with hard power or attract it with soft. Though both forms have their place, Nye’s point is that the more far-reaching and long-lasting use of power is to attract others to one’s side. The 19th century Iron Chancellor of Germany Otto von Bismarck summed this up well with his maxim, “Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.”
The touchstone of soft power is friendship. Thus far in his administration, President Donald Trump is doing a better job of alienating friends than making them. Indeed, a Pew poll in early June found that the United States was viewed favorably by less than 50 percent of the people among all our key allies, except for Great Britain. In contrast, eight years ago, every U.S. ally viewed America favorably by at least 70 percent.
These numbers certainly have not been helped by the recent increases in tariffs on U.S. imports from Canada, Mexico and members of the European Union, on national security grounds of all things, when all of these countries are close American military allies. The real source of our trade woes is China, not our allies. Rather than rely on its longstanding friendships to work out a unified approach to China, in its unilateralism, Washington is now facing retaliatory tariffs from our insulted friends.
The renowned 19th century American essayist, Ralph Waldo Emerson, famously wrote, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” So how do we turn this around? To paraphrase Emerson, friendship, at root, is an affection of the heart. It is based on trust, mutual respect and a common purpose around which to rally and define the friendship.
After World War II, the United States and its European allies created the North American Treaty Organization alliance based on shared democratic values and rallying around the common purpose of containing a hostile communist, anti-democratic Soviet Union. This alliance was strengthened by the stellar example of our practice of a civil democracy at home, what Ronald Reagan called “a shining city on a hill;” George H. W. Bush, “a thousand points of light;” and Bill Clinton, “a bridge to tomorrow.”
While Trump’s rallying cry of “Make America Great Again” clearly resonates with many Americans at home, it is hardly a source of inspiration or friendship to other countries. What is the common purpose of such a call?
Today our problem is greater than just this slogan. It is our politics. Eerily echoing the politics of the 2016 presidential campaign, Emerson wrote in the 1840s that a political party “is perpetually corrupted by personality,” as its leaders “reap the rewards of the docility and zeal of the masses they direct” by “lashing themselves to fury.”
Today, such furies are encapsulated in such cruelly inflammatory campaign epithets as a “basket of deplorables” and “lock her up.”
Sadly, now might not be such a good time to seek out friends, since any light aimed at our city on a hill would reveal a shameful spectacle rather than a stellar example of democracy. It is better to just shut these lights out until we let go of our fury, from both sides, and learn how to behave again. To have friends abroad, we will have to find ways to be friends at home first.