Donald Trump
Credit: The White House/Flickr

In 2001, New York and Washington, D.C., were attacked, and the world responded by saying, “We are all Americans.” The greatest ever military coalition formed to come to America’s defense. Nations—including Cuba, Iran, Libya, and North Korea—condemned the terrorist attacks. Countries rallied to express sympathy and send material support.

That was then.

In 2020, the United States is facing an attack by the invisible COVID-19 virus and has a shaky economy in a self-induced coma. And, now, nationwide protests are highlighting racial injustice, with mostly peaceful gatherings to rightly mourn George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis.

But during this time of crisis, all of a sudden, the rest of the world no longer identifies with America. In fact, populations across the globe are looking at the United States as a pariah state. George Floyd protests are breaking out in foreign capitals worldwide, emotionally flavored with strong anti-Trump sentiments. Adversarial nations and leaders are gleefully enjoying the momentary comeuppance and trying to rub salt in this nation’s open wounds.

This is now.

In the eyes of the world, America has changed. We are no longer seen as a nation leading on human rights, press freedom, civil rights, democracy, justice. Foreign TV screens either show an executive indifferent to the world’s suffering or selfishly seeking advantage for an “America First” policy agenda—even during a global pandemic that requires international collaboration and multilateral solutions.

They are wrong, of course. America still promotes justice and democracy abroad; still provides security and humanitarian aid in far-off lands. But America’s reputation has suffered. The perception abroad is that America has dangerously backslid. The current president—with his for sharp divisive talk and harsh reactive policies—has sucked up all the oxygen in the global media. He is America’s loudest and most visible representative. He and his peccadillos now embody America in the world, and the world does not like what it sees. The majority of America does not like it, either.

Floyd’s brutal asphyxiation under the knee of a cruel and callous cop is the catalyst for current domestic unrest. It has also reinforced a global citizenry’s increasingly critical attitude toward the United States.

Poll numbers in allied nations—where we once freely traveled pre-COVID-19—have sunk lower than a diked Dutch lowland. While those favorability numbers have dropped significantly for America as a nation, they have nearly bottomed out for the U.S. president. The two are, of course, inextricably tied. The Pew Research Center recently found that globally there are “more negative ratings for President Trump than for other world leaders.” That’s right, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin rank higher globally. Take a moment to grok that reality.

America’s downgrade in the global public’s estimation has a lot to do with Trump, as Pew has shown. The popularized international caricature of a grotesquely evil Trump—whether the Trump Baby balloon or daily editorial cartoons—is a big part of the perception problem. Trump, of course, does his best to fit the two-dimensional villain role, wantonly demeaning both people and places while also tweeting divisive inanities.

But it is not just Trump. America presents a confusing face to the world with our relative openness toward our societal problems. We publicly air our dirty laundry. That’s both a curse and a blessing.

When reprehensible actions against innocents are caught on camera, like mass shootings or racist killings, we don’t hide these acts from the world. Everybody gets to see all sides of America. They see how we painfully work through problems and seek solutions. The process sometimes brings our society to a breaking point. As difficult as it is, everyone gets a gander at systemic racism, police brutality, economic inequality, impeachments, demonstrations, riots. The world gets to watch as we struggle through reforms, fight for freedoms, wrangle for rights.

By contrast, we rarely see the brutality that occurs in closed societies—and what’s out of sight is often out of mind. China’s concentration camps have imprisoned and “re-educated” a million Uighurs. Emotionally charged images of Uighurs, if they exist, do not play every hour on cable news. Russia’s war in Ukraine is not distilled into an eight-minute and 46 second video. The foreign broadcast networks of Moscow’s RT or Beijing’s CGTV do not show images of those nations’ victims of injustice.

This hidden hideousness may keep Russia and China from taking a reputational hit, but it also shields their systems from domestic and international pressure to reform.

Ours is a messy system. It’s also a preferable system. We tend to correct our mistakes and make progress over time. That won’t bring back George Floyd, but it may bring back America’s reputation and role in the world.

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Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).