Not Even Trump Can Obliterate America's Soft Power
The downsides of President Donald Trump’s first year in office are legion, but among the most serious has undoubtedly been his effect on American soft power. Case in point is the global response to the president’s alleged remarks that the U.S. should no longer accept immigrants from “shithole countries” such as Haiti and various African nations — an episode that has once again shown how Trump excels at using the bully pulpit to bring down international condemnation on his own country.
Yet, as I argue in my new book, “American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump,” the president’s entire first year has represented a veritable assault on American soft power — one that will likely cause damage outlasting Trump’s time in office.
When we talk about America’s soft power, we are talking about several related things: the global perception that America is a flawed but basically admirable society; the sense that U.S. foreign policy serves not just its self-interest but the broader common well-being; the use of non-coercive tools to achieve diplomatic goals. Over the decades, the U.S. has benefited enormously from all these forms of soft power.
During the Cold War, for instance, humanitarian assistance to needy countries and economic initiatives such as the Marshall Plan produced international goodwill that proved a crucial tool in the competition with the Soviet Union. Similarly, America’s democratic ideals have long allowed it to appeal to populations around the world, and the attractiveness of U.S. culture and society have given Washington influence with the citizenry of allies and adversaries alike.
Soft power can easily be overestimated, of course: The country of the Bill of Rights and “all men are created equal” is also the country with a tragic history of slavery and segregation. And the effect of U.S. soft power would be far less if Washington did not possess hard-power dominance. But on the whole, soft power acts as a significant force-multiplier, facilitating cooperation with friends, providing ideological advantages over enemies, and generally enhancing the impact of U.S. policy.
Based on his record so far, however, Trump appears to have little understanding of the benefits soft power can provide. He has repeatedly talked down the power of the American example by arguing that his own country is morally no better than, say, Vladimir Putin’s Russia. And during his first year in office, Trump has undermined U.S. soft power in three particular ways.
First, he has sought crippling budget cuts for the institutions that the U.S. government uses to exercise nonmilitary influence overseas. Mick Mulvaney, the director of the Office of Management and Budget, described the president’s first budget submission as “not a soft-power budget.” Indeed, it included trims of nearly 30 percent for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development, and therefore entailed drastic reductions in programs focusing on global public health, food security, women’s rights, and myriad other issues.
The leaders of the Republican-controlled Congress promptly deemed the budget “dead on arrival,” because it would have severely weakened U.S. diplomacy, development aid and humanitarian assistance — all of which the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, has deemed critical to achieving a lasting defeat of the Islamic State and other foreign policy objectives. But Trump’s disdain for the State Department has still had profound effects: The president of the American Foreign Service Association warned last fall that accomplished diplomats were leaving the department in droves, taking enormous institutional knowledge with them.
Second, the president has attacked — head-on — the idea that the U.S. should stand for something more than its own self-interest. A year ago, Trump used his inaugural address to frame U.S. foreign policy as a giveaway to an ungrateful world, and to call for a more narrowly nationalistic approach to American statecraft.
The National Security Strategy released last month emphasized intense competition — not to preserve a liberal world order that benefits all nations who play by its rules, but on behalf of America's own economic and geopolitical interests.
The president has also repeatedly derided America’s role as chief promoter of democracy and human rights, thereby undermining the ideological appeal of a nation that stands for universal values. In fact, he has undertaken policies — such as his persistent efforts to restrict immigration and exclude refugees from Muslim-majority nations — that are deemed cruel and discriminatory overseas. And, of course, he has described his foreign policy as “America First” — a label explicitly endorsing the idea that the U.S. must behave more selfishly in the world.
Third, Trump has weakened American soft power through his own behavior. He is hardly the only president to say loathsome things, but he is unique in displaying his unattractive qualities so openly, so unembarrassedly, so repeatedly. The president’s use of racist and xenophobic appeals, his disdain for democratic norms, his generally crass style of rhetoric and action — all these characteristics have been dragging down global respect for America since the moment he took office. The outraged global reaction to the “shithole countries” incident was sadly familiar — it mimicked the criticism the president earned through his refusal to condemn white supremacists after the violence last summer in Charlottesville, Virginia, as well as several other episodes.
There is no ambiguity about the effect this is having. As early as June 2017, America’s global favorability in the Pew poll of global attitudes and trends had dropped from 64 percent at the end of Barack Obama’s presidency to 49 percent under Trump. Large majorities of global respondents described the American president as “intolerant,” “arrogant” and “dangerous.” Even Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin — ambitious dictators of revisionist countries — had higher personal favorability ratings than Trump. As Trump’s own defense secretary, James Mattis, has remarked, the U.S. needs to “get the power of inspiration back.”
That’s not going to happen as long as Trump is president. The real question is how long it will take American soft power to recover once he departs.
The good news is that U.S. soft power has traditionally been quite resilient — it has survived globally unpopular presidents before. The reason for this, as the Harvard scholar Joseph Nye points out, is that over the long term U.S. soft power derives less from the image of any individual than from the broader attractiveness of America’s society, culture and political values. The bad news, however, is that Trump can nonetheless do damage that will not be so easy to repair.
As Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker, two of America’s most distinguished diplomats, have noted, the brain drain affecting the State Department today will have a lasting effect on America’s ability to exert non-military power effectively, because the department is losing so many individuals with experience that takes years or even decades to develop. (The fact that applications for entry-level spots in the Foreign Service are also down will make replacing that expertise all the harder.)
More problematic still, even if Trump does not succeed in making the U.S. a less tolerant, less democratic, less attractive society, he may affect global views of America even after he leaves office.
Once Trump is gone, most governments and populations around the world will probably breathe a sigh of relief. But they won’t forget that Americans elected such an individual as its president, and they will surely wonder what that says about the judgment and the character of the nation that has long claimed to be the “last, best hope of mankind.”
Most of the countries the U.S. has traditionally worked with will be eager for their relationships with the superpower to get back to normal. Yet they will have seen what the U.S. electoral system is capable of producing, and so it will be a long time before the world ever looks at America quite the same way again.
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Tobin Harshaw at firstname.lastname@example.org