I met Rahimah Abdurahim — friends call her “Ima” — while serving in Jakarta, Indonesia, as the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a post I left in January. Ima was one of the many talented, smart, optimistic people with whom I had the privilege to work. Many of my interlocutors, like Ima, were Muslim, as Indonesia has the largest Muslim population of any country, over 200 million, and there are Islamic communities throughout Southeast Asia.
Ima is a champion for secular, liberal democracy, heading the Habibie Center, a think tank that makes democracy promotion one of its main priorities. She is also one of the people who serve as bridges to the United States. She grew up in America and speaks American English at least as well as I do.
Ima was scheduled to come to the United States next month, but just cancelled her trip. She read about the difficulties Muslim travelers are facing and decided it wasn’t worth the risk. Ima is one of an enormous population of influential people outside U.S. borders who follow U.S. politics and policies very carefully, on a daily or even hourly basis. She, like many others, is alarmed by what she is seeing.
The seven-country travel ban, and now the new six-country travel ban, is part of what troubles those beyond U.S. borders, but only part. It’s also the selfish-sounding rhetoric of “America First,” insulting telephone calls to allies, dismissal of treaties that took many countries many years to negotiate, hostility to immigrants, and a zero-sum view of trade. Many are also disturbed by the sheer uncertainty over what American foreign policy actually is right now.
This collection of attitudes and policies will come to hurt the United States in countless ways for years to come. Ima’s cancelled trip is a tiny example of the injuries America is inflicting on itself. We are losing money. Ima and those like her would have eaten in restaurants, stayed in hotels, taken taxis, and seen shows. An average tourist spends over $3,000 in the United States during a visit, according to the National Travel and Tourism Office, totaling hundreds of billions each year.
We are also being deprived of Ima’s knowledge, which cannot be gleaned from the media, on what is happening in Indonesia, ASEAN, and Asia, so we are less informed. Our societal fabric is not quite as rich, because all the friends Ima has in the United States will not get to see her. These are minor costs in the grand scheme, but when aggregated across thousands or millions of people in the world making individual choices, they add up.
Unfortunately, foreign visitors cancelling trips is not the most grievous consequence of America’s current masochistic streak. Greater harm comes from the erosion of American leadership.
The basic construct of America’s global position is that many countries have agreed to follow its lead, much of the time, because they believe that: 1) America is sincere in wanting the best for them as well as for itself, 2) America will play by the rules, and 3) America will put its money where its mouth is and invest in a better world. U.S. foreign aid, which the Trump administration promises to slash, totals less than one percent of the federal budget, but those funds are leveraged in various ways to pay for programs that vaccinate kids, encourage young entrepreneurs, support independent journalists and judges, rescue slaves, and much more.
America’s leadership position has benefited the country enormously. U.S. leadership made Americans safer. Other countries joined the fight against the Islamic State and have been willing to subject their healthcare systems to audits to check resilience to pandemic diseases. Nuclear proliferation has been minimized. American leadership may also have saved the country, and all of humanity, from the worst ravages of climate change through a global deal that could not have come about without intensive U.S. engagement.
The United States profits from its leadership too. America has been able to finance its economy because other countries accept the dollar as the world reserve currency, believing that America will make good on its debt obligations. Leadership gives the United States leverage to open markets to its exports.
The construct for U.S. leadership is not perfect: The Obama administration tried hard to get other countries, especially emerging powers, to take more responsibility for solving shared problems. Nor does America’s position of leadership come easily, especially as emerging powers like China make tempting offers with fewer obvious strings attached. It takes the constant work, day in and day out, of U.S. diplomats around the world. Just like America, other nations look after their own self-interest foremost and do not join forces naturally. It requires creativity, persistence, and hard work, because entrenched interests everywhere, and sometimes other influential countries, resist U.S. efforts to fight corruption, improve individual freedoms, strike favorable trade deals, win markets, educate girls, and protect nature, among other ends.
American global leadership rests on a sincere belief that when other people in the world have safety, dignity, opportunities, and hope, we in America are better off. Americans for generations have believed this truth. And I have always taken for granted America’s desire and ability to play this special, exceptional, global leadership role.
But I never will again, because the current administration is clearly not interested in leading the world. During his address to Congress, President Donald Trump said, “My job is not to represent the world. My job is to represent the United States of America.” That is, of course, every American president’s job first. But by not asserting global American leadership as the best way to serve the United States, he abandons America’s role. The administration has also failed to articulate a vision that would cause others to follow. “America first” means America alone. When all is said and done, the Trump administration’s current approach will make the country less rich, less safe, less informed, and less a beacon to people like Ima. Leadership is fragile. I fear we will not get it back. I hope I am wrong.
Photo credit: Protesters hold a rally against Trump in Jakarta, Indonesia, on February 4. OSCAR SIAGIAN/Getty Images