America's reputation around the world is tainted: Panicked foreign leaders are publicly worrying about Donald Trump

Foreign leaders voicing their concerns this publicly is both unprecedented and show how bad things really are

Published April 22, 2016 9:57AM (EDT)

 Donald Trump (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)
Donald Trump (Reuters/Brendan McDermid)

If there was any doubt that the awfulness of Donald Trump's candidacy transcended conventional partisan differences, the international response to his campaign has removed it.

Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared on CBS's “Face the Nation” and called Trump and the broader Republican campaign an “embarrassment” that is creating doubts about America's reliability abroad. “Everywhere I go, every leader I meet,” Kerry said, “they ask about what is happening in American. They cannot believe it. I think it is fair to say that they're shocked. They don't know where it's taking the United States of America. It upsets people's sense of equilibrium about our steadiness, about our reliability.”

A few weeks ago, President Obama was speaking at a nuclear summit and was asked about some uncommonly stupid remarks made by Trump. He answered as diplomatically as possible, saying the referenced statements tell us that the person who made them “doesn't know much about foreign policy, nuclear policy, the Korean peninsula or the world generally.” But he later made the crucial point that “What we do is really important to the rest of the world,” and that people “want sobriety and clarity when it comes to U.S. elections.”

In March, Hillary Clinton admitted that world leaders were reaching out to her, looking for ways to stop Trump. “I am already receiving messages from leaders,” Clinton said, “I'm having foreign leaders ask if they can endorse me to stop Donald Trump.”

Unsurprisingly, a new report by Politico says the concerns of global leaders remain unassuaged. There is a growing panic that Trump, an unqualified huckster, is inching inexorably towards the White House. “According to more than two dozen U.S. and foreign-government officials,” write Edward-Isaac Dovere and Bryan Bender, “Trump has become the starting point for what feels like every government-to-government interaction. In meetings, private dinners and phone calls, world leaders are urgently seeking explanations from Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State John Kerry, Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Trade Representative Michael Froman on down. American ambassadors are asking for guidance from Washington about what they're supposed to say.”

An anonymous American official told Politico that people are aghast at what's happening: “They all ask. They follow our politics with excruciating detail. They ask: 'What is this Trump phenomenon? Can he really win? What would it mean for U.S. policy going forward or U.S. engagement in the world?' They're all sort of incredulous.”

Obama has tried, unsuccessfully, to ease anxieties about Trump, explaining the arcane and bloated primary process. He's even reminded leaders that the convention rules are such that Trump can be stopped against the will of voters or that Hillary Clinton, the most likely Democratic nominee, will easily defeat Trump if it comes to that. That so many have been so wrong about Trump thus far is part of the reason Obama's arguments are failing to persuade.

America has had its share of dumb or otherwise unreliable candidates, but Trump is something entirely different. “However much people recoiled from George W. Bush or have been disappointed by Obama, they see Trump as off the Richter scale,” said Peter Mandelson, a British Cabinet member. “The reason for that is not that he must be stupid – nobody thinks that – but that he's disdainful, unscrupulous, prepared to say anything to harvest the populist vote. And that makes people frightened.”

All of these concerns are more than justified. Trump's self-promoting nihilism is bad enough on the campaign trail, but the hazards of a potential Trump administration are far more concrete. His willingness to say or do anything offers a glimpse of the kind of president he would be – undignified, unpredictable, and dangerously ignorant. That foreign leaders are willing to voice their concerns this publicly is both unprecedented and an indication of how bad things really are. It's also, unfortunately, a reminder of the damage Trump has already done to America's reputation abroad. A serious country with a serious process would not permit Trump's political existence – not on this scale, at least. But this is where we are, and it will only get worse from here.

By Sean Illing

Sean Illing is a USAF veteran who previously taught philosophy and politics at Loyola and LSU. He is currently Salon's politics writer. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Read his blog here. Email at

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