If Americans are in shock about Trump’s win, imagine the discombobulation abroad. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, it validated what the world believes, that the United States is a country that can live up to its founding ideals. President-elect Trump rocked the world because he rocks the foundations of America, challenging religious freedom and tolerance, challenging our historic inclusion of immigrants, even questioning our first allegiance to the world’s strongest democracies, our allies, with whom we forged an international order, including NATO.
Like most Americans though, international audiences understand there is a difference between political rhetoric and reality. If a Trump administration can deliver a more competitive America that works in the international arena, he will be judged by that. Up until now, it has been just words. Some of them inflammatory, some of the disheartening, but ultimately just words. As yet, there is no wall, there are no deportations, and no backing away from our commitments to our allies. America can get on course and lead the world as it should given its resources, history, and capability.
This election also put each of us and our beliefs in stark relief with one or the other candidate. There was a real choice. And that is the beauty of democracy. Self-correction is part of the process and the American experience is a long running show. So for the people who found hope in Hillary’s and Bernie’s messages, the answer is to get involved, locally, at the state level, nationally and internationally.
Like most Americans though, international audiences understand there is a difference between political rhetoric and reality. If a Trump administration can deliver a more competitive America that works in the international arena, he will be judged by that.
Let me quote my friend from Finland. He says to Americans who are disillusioned, “there is no “Canada” to go to. Instead, one should look the reality and the facts boldly in eye – even if it scares the hell out of you – and continue working for the world one wants to see and the world one believes in. That is the only way forward. There really is no other alternative.” The other beauty of democracy is the ability to make our voices heard.
The U.S. has good friends abroad who want us to be the beacon for inclusion and democracy that we can be. Even in Mexico, a country that became a whipping boy for many domestic problems, is a country that has been one of our top trading partners. A real partnership with Mexico is vital for both countries. So hopefully the policy will be more accommodating than the rhetoric and President-elect Trump will find ways to reach out to our neighbors, work on an immigration policy that makes sense and craft a new trade deal that doesn’t shut the door. A few more bridges before we contemplate a wall.
One bright spot may be the opening this creates with Russia. As bizarre as this bromance between Putin and Trump may be, there is likely to be a “honeymoon” between the U.S. and Russia that should allow us to make real progress on Syria and to reduce the tensions and brinksmanship Russia has been practicing with the Baltics and elsewhere. Trade deals with Russia would be good for both countries, and lessening tensions would allow government funds to flow towards infrastructure rather than new Cold War toys and confrontation.
Trump’s bottom line message though was not necessarily insular. The promise is to “Make America Great Again.” America can’t do that by pulling up the drawbridge and disengaging from the world.
For the voters who put their faith in Trump’s ability to make better trade deals and to bring manufacturing back to the U.S., the real test will be whether Trump can deliver on education, both higher education and vocational, to make disenfranchised workers competitive internationally. American companies don’t take orders from the White House, but they do know they need an educated workforce to compete. Jumpstarting the American economy by investing in infrastructure, as promised, would also put Americans to work and make America more competitive.
Balancing the promises at home and abroad will mean tough choices on defense. Pulling back from our commitments abroad may save money in the short run, but cede influence and markets to China and Russia. Trump’s bottom line message though was not necessarily insular. The promise is to “Make America Great Again.” America can’t do that by pulling up the drawbridge and disengaging from the world. We can only do that by engaging.
I’ll never forget being at a revolutionary rally in Riga, Latvia before the fall of the Soviet Union. Independence flags flew everywhere and the crowd in the rally was in the midst of fierce arguments with pro-Soviet and pro-independence people speaking their minds. I asked one of the participants to tell me what was going on. Almost immediately the crowd turned to me. Simply because I was an American. The crowd saw in America a great hope and promise. America was the standard they wanted to judge their own independence movement by. I had never felt before how powerful the idea of American democracy can be.
The last big disruptor of the political norm was Ronald Reagan. One of his favorite phrases was calling America a “City on a Hill.” We are still on the hill. People around the world are watching. For all of us the responsibility is help America live up to its best ideals. Let’s be that beacon of light and hope on the hill.