At the G20 conference in Buenos Aires late last year, President Donald Trump started wandering offstage in the middle of a photo with the president of Argentina. When an aide chased him down, he was caught on microphone muttering, “Get me out of here.” An American politician expressing international travel fatigue is understandable. But this president has been to fewer foreign countries at this point in his term than any predecessor since Ronald Reagan.
During the 20th century, international travel became a much-used tool for U.S. presidents to assert American influence; think of John F. Kennedy traveling to the Berlin Wall to reprimand the Soviets. What, then, are we to make of Trump’s apparent reluctance to go abroad?
The fact is that Trump’s decreased foreign travel has corresponded with a diminution in American influence abroad. For most of the post-war era, when Americans traveled around the world, they would encounter people talking about how the United States had changed their lives from afar, for better or for worse; today, people are talking much more about China. The relative shift in the share of international consciousness each country occupies is partly owed to the rapid rise in China’s involvement in other countries’ economies, especially in Asia and Africa—but Trump’s nationalist rhetoric and his protectionist policies on trade and immigration have also contributed.
In a 25-nation survey last year by the Pew Research Center, roughly 70 percent of respondents said that China’s role in the world has grown over the past 10 years; roughly 30 percent said the same about the United States. This has coincided, in China, with millions of young people being lifted out of the poverty-stricken circumstances that plagued their parents. In the U.S., meanwhile, only half of those born in the 1980s earn more than their parents did at the same age, compared with 90 percent of those born in the 1940s.
And yet while the decline of America’s relative fortunes comes through clearly in the data, Americans remain indomitably hopeful about their future: In 2017, Pew found that while only 36 percent of people in the U.S. feel their family has achieved the American dream, 46 percent believe they are on their way there—and only 17 percent see it as out of reach. With Americans’ view of their own future so much more sanguine than the world’s view of it, perhaps it’s not surprising that President Trump, the televangelist of American greatness, would rather stay home.