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The world sees a shining city in a ditch

President Obama once said, "American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world." It's why Donald Trump's victory creates global uncertainty.
Mexican newspapers with their headlines referring to the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on Nov. 9, 2016 in Mexico City. (Photo by Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty)
Mexican newspapers with their headlines referring to the eventual triumph of Donald Trump on Nov. 9, 2016 in Mexico City.
Back in March, Dan Rather was on the show, reflecting on Donald Trump's rise, and he made a comment to Rachel that stood out for me. "I don't want to be preachy about it, but Abraham Lincoln described America as the last best hope of Earth," Rather said. "Well, can you imagine what people overseas, who understand that the stability in our country is the key to world order, and when they see those television images [of Trump events], what can they be thinking?"It's not a rhetorical question. Trump himself told supporters last week, "Our country is a laughingstock all over the world," and though I suspect he meant it in a different way, his victory turned the claim into a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts. The Washington Post reported this morning on international reactions to the U.S. election results:

The world gasped in collective disbelief on Wednesday following the victory of Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race, with apprehensive allies seeking to put a brave face on a result they had dreaded and American adversaries exulting in an outcome they see as a potential turning point in global affairs. [...][B]eneath the assurances of business as usual, and even optimism in some quarters, was deep anxiety that Trump's win could fundamentally unsettle the global order.

It is a truth most Americans take for granted and rarely pause to remember: the United States enjoys an unrivaled status on the international stage. We're not just a global power, we're the superpower without rival.Friend and foe alike recognize that the United States is the foundation for stability in the Western world, and there's an expectation that our leaders -- Democrat or Republican -- can be counted on to show sound judgment and stable leadership.That confidence was clearly shaken during the Bush/Cheney era, when much of the world questioned whether the U.S. had lost its compass and Americans started sewing Canadian flags onto their belongings when traveling abroad, hoping to avoid confrontations with those demanding an explanation for the Republican president's failed foreign policies.But President Obama -- and to a very real extent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- made it a priority to restore American credibility, and those efforts paid off. The damage was largely repaired in much of the world thanks to diligent diplomacy and sound decision-making.And then Americans decided it was time to make a buffoonish television personality the leader of the free world. The domestic consequences will be felt for at least a generation, but the scope of the international consequences will arguably be every bit as dramatic.The New York Times had a report the other day -- published when it seemed Clinton was likely to win -- on the "widespread scorn and ridicule" the United States was receiving around the globe over the state of our political system. The fact that Americans would even consider Trump, much less vote for him, was seen as evidence of a superpower in sharp decline.

Across the planet, people are contemplating the possibility that the United States might not be so exceptional after all."Much of the world is no longer in awe of you," said Lyall Mercer, managing director of a public relations company in Australia.Mr. Mercer noted that state lawmakers in Sydney had recently adopted a resolution by unanimous accord that described Mr. Trump as a "revolting slug.""Of course I understand this is about the candidate and not the country," Mr. Mercer said. "But the very fact that they were willing to do this, with not one M.P. speaking against it -- despite knowing they were ridiculing someone who could be the next president of our most important ally -- I think speaks to the diminishing awe, or even respect."

Hisham Melhem, a correspondent for An-Nahar, Lebanon's leading daily newspaper, added, "Even during the worst days of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, there were always pockets of people who had studied in the U.S. who still looked up to the United States. Now, many of them have given up on the United States as a beacon of progress and enlightenment."China has even pointed to Trump as powerful evidence that democracy itself is a flawed model of government that must be avoided.Remember, this was before Americans actually elected Trump, damaging our standing further.This matters in ways that will be difficult to predict. What happens when the world gives up on the United States and no longer sees it as a force for good in the world? What happens to international stability when the shining city on a hill slides into a ditch that it deliberately dug for itself?A couple of years ago, President Obama delivered a speech that I re-read this morning in which he said, accurately, "Abroad, American leadership is the one constant in an uncertain world."And now that American leadership is in the hands of a former reality-show host perceived as a racist and a misogynist with authoritarian instincts, it necessarily creates international uncertainty unseen since the fall of the USSR.As Crispin Blunt, chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Britain’s House of Commons, said this morning, “We are plunged into uncertainty and the unknown.”