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Global leadership that exists only in Trump's imagination

I wish Trump's fantasy about the world eagerly following the United States' lead were rooted in reality. But as is too often the case, he has it backwards.
From left, the President of the European Council Donald Tusk, British Prime Minister Theresa May, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Donald Trump, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, French President Emmanuel Macron, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker pose for a family photo during the G-7 Summit in La Malbaie, Quebec, on June 8.Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images

During a brief Q&A with reporters on Tuesday, Donald Trump boasted not only about his administration's troubled response to the coronavirus pandemic, but also about what he sees as international admiration for the White House's efforts. "I'll tell you, the whole world is excited watching us because we're leading the world," the president said with a straight face.

At a White House event on Friday, the Republican added that "many" heads of state from around the world view the United States "as the world leader" on combating COVID-19, and "they're following us." Trump went on to say that some officials, however, would not want to "admit" the degree to which Americans are leading.

In reality, they probably would be loath to "admit" it because it's plainly absurd. In a literal sense, the United States is, as the president put it, "leading the world" insofar as we have the most infections and fatalities. But when it comes to actual international leadership, Trump is peddling a fantasy.

Writing for The Atlantic, Anne Applebaum had a piece last week on the American president filling the role of global laughingstock.

Carl Bildt -- a Swedish prime minister in the 1990s, a United Nations envoy during the Bosnian wars, and a foreign minister for many years after that -- told me that, looking back on his 30-year career, he cannot remember a single international crisis in which the United States had no global presence at all. "Normally, when something happens" -- a war, an earthquake -- "everybody waits to see what the Americans are doing, for better or for worse, and then they calibrate their own response based on that." This time, Americans are doing … nothing. Or to be more specific, because plenty of American governors, mayors, doctors, scientists, and tech companies are doing things, the White House is doing nothing. There is no presidential leadership inside the United States; there is no American leadership in the world.

There have been a striking number of reports along these lines of late. CNN noted over the weekend, for example, that the White House's ineptitude is "undermining efforts to battle the coronavirus pandemic and left the international community without a traditional global leader."

Timothy Egan added in his latest column, "America has a failed federal government, laughed at and pitied the world over."

The New York Times reported late last month that many are looking at "the richest and most powerful nation in the world with disbelief" as the United States struggles with the coronavirus crisis. The crisis, the article added, is "shaking fundamental assumptions about American exceptionalism -- the special role the United States played for decades after World War II as the reach of its values and power made it a global leader and example to the world."

The Times spoke to Henrik Enderlein, president of the Berlin-based Hertie School, who said, "When people see these pictures of New York City they say, 'How can this happen? How is this possible?' We are all stunned." Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European history at Oxford, added, "I feel a desperate sadness."

Dominique Moisi, a political scientist and senior adviser at the Paris-based Institut Montaigne, said, "America has not done badly, it has done exceptionally badly." Explaining the nation's lack of preparedness, he added, "It raises the question: Has America become the wrong kind of power with the wrong kind of priorities?"

The Times' report added that the ongoing pandemic is "perhaps the first global crisis in more than a century where no one is even looking for Washington to lead."

I wish Trump's fantasy about the world eagerly following the United States' lead were rooted in reality. Alas, as is too often the case, the confused president has it backwards.