To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”…

After almost four years of the Trump presidency, European diplomats, officials, and politicians are to varying degrees shocked, appalled, and scared. They have been locked in what one described to me as a “Trump-induced coma,” unable to soften the president’s instincts and with little by way of strategy other than signaling aversion to his leadership. They have also been unable to offer an alternative to American power and leadership, nor much of a response to some of the fundamental complaints consistent to both Trump and his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Joe Biden: European free riding, the strategic threat from China, and the need to tackle Iranian aggression. What has united almost all of them is the sense that America’s place and prestige in the world are now coming under direct attack by this sudden coming together of domestic, epidemiological, economic, and political forces.

Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria who served at the United Nations during the Iraq War, and who now works as a special adviser to the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne, told me the nadir of American prestige has, until now, been the revelations of torture and abuse inside the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in 2004. “Today, it is much worse,” he said. What makes things different now, according to Duclos, is the extent of division within the United States and the lack of leadership in the White House. “We live with the idea that the U.S. has an ability to rebound that is almost unlimited,” Duclos said. “For the first time, I’m starting to have some doubts.”