Leaders at the national level are not usually expected to be leaders at the international level. There are several reasons for this, most obvious among them are the nations they lead, which generally are not large or strong enough to provide them with a platform for exercising power or influence worldwide. There are occasional exceptions to this general rule, but they are just that, exceptions.
At the same time there are a few national leaders who are expected, virtually as a matter of course, to lead at the international level. These are leaders of countries of such obvious heft – especially militarily and economically – that neither their policies or preferences can possibly be ignored. The most obvious example is, of course, the United States, which at least since the end of the Second World War has played a dominant or, better, the dominant role in world affairs. Not for nothing was the U.S. long tagged, “leader of the free world.”
Presidents at least from Franklin Delano Roosevelt through Barack Obama have generally welcomed this role – though some more, of course, and some less. They assumed the mantle of world leader and did what they thought their level best to wear it responsibly. Easy enough to take issue with some of the decisions they made, but at least they did not fixate on what was happening at home while ignoring effectively entirely what was happening abroad.
Until President Donald Trump. It is by now a conventional wisdom that his interest in and knowledge of the world, and world affairs, is low, very, very low. He is entirely uninformed and, worse, completely incurious about anything anyplace except in so far as it affects his own fortunes. Moreover, he is outright antipathetic to countries and cultures other than his own, especially if they seem to him to be alien – that is, other than Scandinavian.
For most of Trump’s presidency this has been yet another of his numberless deficits. Now though, given the world is caught simultaneously in two different (though related) crises, a virus crisis and a financial crisis, Trump’s America-First fixation poses an unfamiliar threat of unknown scope.
Every single one of Trump’s mid-to-late twentieth century predecessors, and every single one of his twenty-first century predecessors, would have been better equipped than he to forge the global alliance necessary to combat COVID-19. Similarly, every single one would have been better equipped than he to forge the global alliance necessary to steer us through the roiling financial markets.
Neither of the two crises threatening our well-being are national – they are international. They are international in their origins and they will be international in their solutions. But Trump’s relationships with leaders of countries that historically have been America’s allies – such as Canada and Germany, Mexico and France – are fraught at best and frayed at worst. And his relationships with leaders of countries that historically have been America’s adversaries – North Korea, Russia, and most importantly now, China – careen from being unctuous and obsequious to antipathetic and antagonistic.
The public health and financial crises equally testify that globalization cannot, will not be undone. Further, addressing the first as well as the second mandates medical, scientific, political, and economic collaboration and cooperation at the international level. Because Trump is constitutionally unable to provide this transnational, multinational leadership, his subordinates in each of these domains are morally obligated to transcend their superior.