x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 18 October 2017

The current circus in Washington is not entertainment. It is tragedy

Considering the way in which Mr Trump’s presidency is seen around the world, the words “American leadership” might turn into a joke

President Donald Trump has made the most of his meeting with president Macron in France. Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images
President Donald Trump has made the most of his meeting with president Macron in France. Thierry Chesnot / Getty Images

There have been worse starts to an American presidency. In 1841, the 9th president William Henry Harrison refused to listen to his advisers, attended his inauguration in grim Washington weather without wearing adequate clothing, spoke for a long time in the rain, caught pneumonia and died after just 31 days in office. The Trump presidency has lasted longer, but the conflicts within Washington and between Washington and various US states are damaging America’s standing in the world. I hope I am wrong, but even now the damage is greater than that of the premature death of the long forgotten Harrison. America is so much more important to the rest of the world than in Harrison’s time.

Let us leave aside for now the daily gossip from Washington. Who met what Russian when and why; who Tweeted what and when; who leaked what and with what aim. These matters may assume considerable importance in the future, but there is a more immediate concern for those of us who believe that for all their flaws and errors — including blunders in the Middle East and also Latin America — the United States is a good thing, a friend, an indispensable ally. For those of us who are pro-American, the spectacle of in-fighting in Washington destroys confidence in American leadership. A former speaker of the US House of Representatives once reminded me that a president cannot be strong abroad if he is weak at home. And whatever side you are on in the Washington hullaballoo, that sense of weakness is where we are now.

I grew up in Scotland and my friends included the sons and daughters from a US air force base nearby. During my childhood in the Cold War, my family saw America as a great ally in our common struggle to keep back Soviet communism. There were other reasons to like America too. The most important was, and still is, Americans themselves. My first American friend was Hans, son of a US air force officer. In Scotland at the time — I must have been about 10 years old — a sandwich was typically a tiny sliver of thin, almost transparent, meat and a slice of tomato equally thin between two slices of tasteless bread. But these Americans! Wow! Their sandwiches had chicken, tomatoes, cheese, lettuce and pickles and were four centimetres high. I fell in love with the American sandwich. It was my first bite of the American Dream. Later I lived in the United States for almost a decade, visiting 48 of 50 states, admiring American energy, culture, their friendliness, creativity and practical common sense. And yet like so many people who think a strong US is good for the world, I am now utterly dismayed. Instead of "make America great again", the mess in Washington seems as if someone hit a button to make America decline fast.

Donald Trump’s Tweets attract ridicule from some. But clearly they communicate effectively with his millions of supporters. Personally, I find it odd that he spends time commentating on television programmes. But since no one yet can quite unravel the tangle of charge and counter-charge in Washington, my real concern is the way in which Mr Trump’s presidency is seen around the world. He scored a big hit with many in the Gulf by his attitude towards Iran and Tehran’s expansion by stealth. He has made the most of his meeting with president Macron in France. But since the Trump inauguration, I have travelled widely across Europe and to the United States, and talked with many friends from the Middle East and China. Most are strongly pro-American and most also express great sadness that we are witnessing an administration under siege, showing its inexperience and at times incoherence and incompetence.

The danger is that the words “American leadership” might turn into a joke. To put it simply, leadership demands followers, and yet on issue after issue America’s allies and followers are often unimpressed. At the recent G20 summit, the opportunity for a very robust common statement about North Korea was lost. Administration attitudes to climate change and the hard-fought Paris Agreement have been widely repudiated, including in America itself, notably California and New York. In Congress, Republicans express support for Mr Trump and yet appear very reluctant to back key Trump administration policies.

Can this be put right? Possibly. One of my American heroes is the great former US diplomat George Kennan. Writing at the start of the Cold War, Kennan fretted about the threat posed by Stalin and the USSR. But he wrote that “to avoid destruction, the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.” I hope that the United States finds ways to “measure up” to its own best traditions. Of course, partisan rows will always continue, but the current circus in Washington is not entertainment. It is tragedy. When it comes to measuring up, now would be a good time. Please.

Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author