DUBAI — The Madinat Jumeirah is as good a place as any for a gathering of the globalists. A sprawling resort that resembles a 12th-century Middle Eastern fortress, crisscrossed by picturesque canals and bordered by two kilometers of private Persian Gulf beachfront, it feels almost too opulent to be real.
Early this week, the Madinat played host to the World Government Summit, an annual conference put on by the government of the United Arab Emirates. There was a lot of earnest policy discussions on topics from artificial intelligence to pandemics, but the most striking thing was the broader, if often only implied, subtext to the entire three-day event: the collapse of America’s global influence under President Trump.
The summit is supposed to be a forum for discussing big-picture issues like trade and artificial intelligence. It’s also an excuse for a lot of really famous and important people to get together — think Davos, but with better weather. Attendees included everyone from Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the head of the World Bank to Neil deGrasse Tyson to Arianna Huffington (the UAE paid for my travel costs, as it did for other journalists covering the event).
This created a very diverse, very global, and deeply weird atmosphere. Over the course of my time here, I watched Robert De Niro lecture about the dangers of climate change while the foreign minister of the Marshall Islands, a country that is literally sinking under rising seas, looked on. I was asked to meet with important policymakers like Tedros Adhanom, the director general of the World Health Organization, and eccentrics like Neil Harbisson, a British electronic musician who implanted an antenna in his head and describes himself as “the world’s first cyborg.”
The conference had everything — everything, that is, except America.
There were plenty of Americans at the conference, to be sure. But the actual speeches and panels barely mentioned the world’s most powerful country — and when they did, it was usually to criticize it.
To take one example among many: Angel Gurria, the head of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, cited some of Trump’s economic policies as “an excellent example of the kinds of things we [advanced democracies] shouldn’t be doing.”
This sort of anti-Americanism is a relatively new development. At the 2016 conference, America was the official guest nation at the conference, which featured a video greeting from President Obama. This year, India was the guest of honor; Prime Minister Modi gave a lengthy keynote address in person.
This is, of course, almost entirely because of Trump. His administration’s hostility to trade agreements, fighting climate, and seemingly the very idea of international cooperation has isolated the United States from the kind of people who attend this conference — an isolation that speaks to a new and deeper kind of American weakness in global politics.
“I feel like he’s the subtext of every conversation [here],” Ari Ratner, a former State Department official attending the conference, said to me one afternoon.
How Trump isolated America
The World Government Summit is, at least in theory, about people putting their heads together to solve big problems. How do we eliminate world poverty? How do we make sure that advances in artificial intelligence don’t endanger humanity? How do we stop climate change from destroying entire communities?
This kind of conversation starts with a presumed “we”: a sense that there’s a global community with shared interests, who face problems that can’t be solved without some kind of collective action.
That’s the foundational premise of every international organization, from the United Nations to the World Bank to the World Health Organization. You heard this ideal expressed a number of times during the conference, like when Gurria (who is not British) said that “we lost Brexit.” The “we” is the global community; Britain’s vote to leave the UK was a defeat for this “we” because it was a vote against global unity and in favor of isolation.
The problem is that the Trump administration strongly rejects those ideas. Trump’s foreign policy tagline, “America First,” suggests that past administrations had subordinated the United States’ interests to those of other countries. His hostility to free trade, his push for dramatically slowed immigration, and his withdrawal from international accords like the Paris climate agreement all suggest that he sees openness to the rest of the world as a threat to the United States. There is no global we; there’s an American “us” and a global “them.”
The rest of the world appears to have gotten the message. When the United States was discussed at the World Government Summit, it wasn’t as a partner that could help address global problems — it was as a roadblock preventing smart new policies from being tested or put in place.
Take, for example, the panel on “the future of trade and globalization,” which included top officials like World Trade Organization Director General Roberto Azevêdo. They spent much of their time either bashing the Trump administration or discussing how to get around it.
When asked by the panel’s moderator about Trump and trade, none of the assembled worthies attacked the American president by name. They responded, instead, by talking about anti-trade sentiment in general — attacking Trump without naming him.
Azevêdo, for example, labeled rising anti-trade sentiment on mass irrationality, on people “being against anything that is foreign.” Mukhisa Kituyi, a top trade policy official at the UN, warned against a “dog-eat-dog” economic worldview that belonged in “the 19th century.” Arancha González, another high-level international trade official, essentially implied that the US could be worked around — praising leaders in Japan, Canada, and Rwanda as the world’s new leaders on trade issues.
The discussions of climate change played out similarly. In his remarks, De Niro said he “flew here last night from a backward country, a place where science once reigned and lately has been replaced by ignorance.” He drew applause after predicting that Trump would be voted out in the 2020 election.
The climate change policymakers used more subtle language than De Niro in discussing America — reverting to the trade panel treatment of Trump as He Who Must Not Be Named — but were hardly more positive than the actor was.
I asked Adnan Amin, director of the International Renewable Energy Agency, how we could head off catastrophic climate change after America’s withdrawal from the Paris agreement. His response was telling: “The US is not the only country in the world.”
These panels were some of the only ones where I heard the role of the United States discussed extensively — and only because when it comes to trade and climate change, America simply has too much clout to be ignored.
For the most part, people were content not to discuss the United States, and thus avoid the need to criticize Trump even in a kind of awkward, indirect fashion. The vast majority of panels and speeches I saw spent no real time analyzing American policy or politics. There was a sense of American irrelevancy under Trump, that the United States was unlikely to contribute to any new global initiative aimed at tackling major problems.
Why it matters when America is snubbed at events like this
At this point, you might be wondering: Who cares about what these people think? Why should the opinion of Director-Secretary-His-Excellency-General of Alphabet Soup International Agency matter to anyone?
The simplest and most obvious answer is that it’s a sign of diminishing American influence. If leaders of international agencies and foreign cabinet ministers are treating the US like a global pariah, that suggests America has less pull with those agencies and governments. They’re less likely to consult closely with the US on big decisions, and more likely to look to leaders in other places — like Berlin, Brussels, or, increasingly, Beijing.
That last one is particularly worrying, given China’s fairly authoritarian, militaristic regime, which means it’s not exactly the kind of country you want writing the rules of the global road.
Like it or not, the rest of the world has decided that there needs to be collective action on certain issues, and that countries should set up at least a minimal set of rules to govern the way they interact. The United States is powerful, but it can’t force other countries to change their minds about things like climate change.
The question isn’t whether there will be future international negotiations on big issues. It’s which countries have seats at the table, and whose interests and ideals any ultimate agreement reflects.
Trump’s decision to isolate America — by, in word and deed, suggesting the United States doesn’t care about issues of global concern — makes whatever the world decides to do on these issues less likely to reflect America’s perspective, and thus less likely to advance American interests.
International diplomacy is a subtle game, with lots of moving parts. Unilaterally giving up influence over one part of it could rebound in unexpected, and almost certainly harmful, ways.
This, I think, is the underappreciated problem with Trump’s attacks on so-called “globalism.” It’s not just that Trump is wrong in moral terms to dismantle America’s commitment to fighting climate change, accepting some of the world’s most vulnerable, or trying to reduce global poverty, though it is. It’s that acting in a blustery, devil-may-care kind of way concretely hurts America’s ability to influence global politics. “America First” actually isn’t all that helpful to America.
The fact that the United States is being insulted and ignored at a global gabfest — a somewhat kooky one at that — is hardly the end of the world. But even if the comments themselves aren’t that important, what they tell us about the nature of the world today still is. The World Government Summit is another piece of evidence about how America’s global position is changing, and it’s not an especially encouraging one.