Skip to main content

David Shribman, the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics.

For decades, American presidents have stood above other global leaders. Donald Trump stands alone.

At the recent Group of Seven summit in Biarritz, France, the political energy on the pressing matters of the burning Amazon forests, the dying Iran nuclear deal and Russia’s threat to the West, sprang from the French and Canadian leaders – and not from Mr. Trump.

Story continues below advertisement

It’s a departure from historical norms. From the Versailles peace negotiations at the end of the First World War to G7 summits of more recent days – and even arguably at the controversial Yalta conference of February, 1945 – U.S. presidents have been at the centre of the conversation, at the centre of the final communiques, almost always at the centre of the traditional group photograph.

Now, for his third G7 summit, Mr. Trump remains an outsider, a role he has cultivated, earned – and celebrated. In his commencement address at Liberty University less than four months into his presidency, Mr. Trump told graduates of the evangelical institution in Lynchburg, Va., “Being an outsider is fine, embrace the label, because it’s the outsiders who change the world."

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives at a press conference at the end of the G7 summit in Biarritz, France, on Aug. 26, 2019.

CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

No one at Biarritz – or on Capitol Hill, or campaigning for the Democratic nomination in Iowa and New Hampshire, or examining the contemporary great-power global architecture from NATO headquarters, the United Nations, the Kremlin or Parliament Hill – doubts for a minute that this outsider has changed the world.

Mr. Trump has done so from the periphery of the debate, the political, strategic and intellectual equivalent of the pale of settlement – a place where no post-1900 American president, even taciturn Calvin Coolidge, who left few footprints on global affairs while presiding over an isolation-oriented country from 1923 to 1929, resided. It was Mr. Coolidge’s secretary of state, Frank B. Kellogg, along with French foreign minister Aristide Briand, for whom the 1928 worldwide treaty renouncing “war as an instrument of national policy’’ was named. A landmark of early 20th-century world diplomacy, it was signed by Canada and dozens of other countries and technically remains in effect.

In previous G7 summits, the central role played by American chief executives from Gerald Ford at the Château de Rambouillet in France to Barack Obama at Kashiko Island, Japan, was assumed by the presidents’ colleagues to be the natural order of things – and was assumed with dignity and grace by the each of the presidents.

Decades earlier at the peace negotiations following the First World War, American president Woodrow Wilson, whose Fourteen Points were the axis of the debate, was incontrovertibly the central figure. Even at Yalta, where the mortally ill Franklin Delano Roosevelt looked haggard, almost cadaverous, his position at the centre, with Winston Churchill on one side and Joseph Stalin on the other, was regarded as inevitable and, with his country’s wealth and surpassing military power, indispensable.

Nearly every picture of that Yalta confab, which Roosevelt critics blame for Communist domination of Eastern Europe after the war, has the American president in the centre. By contrast, Mr. Trump has been known to muscle his way to the centre of G7 group shots, a symbol of his assertive political style, an emblem of his aggressive personal comportment, a metaphor for his raucous entry into American and global affairs.

Story continues below advertisement

Then again, with his inherited wealth, Hyde Park estate, Harvard education, Campobello holidays, Theodore Roosevelt lineage and a résumé that included the 1920 Democratic vice-presidential nomination and two terms as governor of New York, then the largest state, FDR was no outsider.

“The contrast between FDR’s background and approach with that of Trump couldn’t be starker,” said Susan Dunn, a Williams College historian and a prominent Roosevelt biographer. “Just contrast Trump’s ‘America First’ vision versus the internationalism of FDR and those who surrounded him.”

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the G7 summit.

CARLOS BARRIA/Reuters

Mr. Roosevelt’s internationalist attitude grew in large measure out of the 1941 summit with Mr. Churchill, when the two leaders fashioned the Atlantic Charter that promoted global co-operation. The leaders of the two most prominent democracies met in Placentia Bay, Nfld., four months before the U.S. entered the Second World War.

Indeed, it was a Roosevelt secretary of war who in a 1947 essay in the journal Foreign Affairs called “The Challenge to Americans” dismissed the notion that “America again be an island to itself.” In that essay, Henry L. Stimson urged the nation take on global responsibility, arguing, “No private program and no public policy, in any sector of our national life, can now escape from the compelling fact that, if it is not framed with reference to the world, it is framed with perfect futility.”

Sylvia Bashevkin, a political scientist at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, argues that Republican presidents have been less interested in working with the so-called allies than Democrats. “From a Canadian perspective here in ‘the attic,'" she said, “Trump is a very extreme version of that outlook.”

Overall, however, the Stimson principle of international engagement has been embraced by Republicans as well as Democrats. While Mr. Stimson today is usually identified with Mr. Roosevelt, he also served as secretary of state under Republican president Herbert Hoover – and Republican president George H.W. Bush often said that Mr. Stimson’s speech at the graduation ceremonies of Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass., in 1940 shaped his worldview as a diplomat and, later, as president.

Story continues below advertisement

Mr. Trump is the first American president since the Second World War who hasn’t made the Stimson principle at least a part of his foreign-policy and global economic portfolio – and the first to disprove the theme of one of Whitney Houston’s greatest ballads. That song, recorded in 1998, is called “You’ll Never Stand Alone.”

Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Cannabis pro newsletter