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Trump and the American Soft Power

Trump and the American Soft Power

Thursday, 25 January, 2018 - 10:45

Donald Trump's tirade a week ago against non-white countries may be tearing the final fiber off American soft power.

Witness the worldwide reaction in the time since the president of the United States called African and Latin American countries "s---holes." This is the latest in a series of offensive actions or assertions by the president that undercuts the appeal of America and American values.

"Trump has been a disaster for American soft power," says Joseph Nye, the distinguished diplomat and academic who coined the phrase three decades ago. It is the ability, short of using force, to influence or coerce others through diplomacy, ideals and assistance. Soft power should complement military power or economic pressure. For 70 years, from the Marshall Plan to rebuild Europe after World War II, this has been a staple, if not a priority, of American foreign policy.

This is neither a modern concept nor a partisan one. "Even the Romans understood the importance of soft power," Nye notes. "Reagan, the Bushes, Clinton, Obama -- all understood this."

Meghan L. O'Sullivan, a top foreign policy official in the George W. Bush Administration, warned in these pages about the dangers of Trump surrendering America's soft-power advantages, citing withdrawal from the Paris climate accords and the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. That was in June 2017; it has gotten worse.

The administration is downsizing and denigrating the diplomatic corps. Foreign-service officers are resigning on principle, and there are scores of vacancies. The expertise gap will take years to address. The White House proposed to slash foreign assistance, although Congress restored some cuts.

Trump continually inflames passions against immigrants, whether it's the message he sent with his proposed ban on visitors from certain Muslim countries or his charges that incoming Haitians "all have AIDS" or that if we let in Nigerians they'll "never go back to their huts." Of course, last summer he seemed to equate white nationalists and neo-Nazis who created violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, with those who were protesting racial injustice.

The fallout of this behavior has been devastating. The Gallup poll last week found that in 134 nations only 30 percent of people approve of US leadership today, an all-time low and down from 48 percent a year ago when Barack Obama was president. A Pew survey last year suggested an even wider gap (Russia was one of the few countries where approval of the US had increased.)

The respected Soft Power 30 survey that measures the most effective use of soft power found that the US in 2017 slipped from first to third place, behind France and the UK. China is coming up on the outside.

Trump and most administration insiders brush such measures aside. Budget director Mick Mulvaney boasted of his "hard power budget." And United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley, in defending the president's record, noted the way he "hit back at Syria," or "finally put North Korea on notice."

The reality is that after the US cruise-missile attack last April on an airbase in Syria, the dictator Bashar al-Assad is still in charge, and Russia and Iran remain influential there. And Kim Jong Un may have been put on notice, but unfortunately the North Korean "rocket man" doesn't seem intimidated.

A few top officials in the Trump administration get the import of soft power. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis warns without more diplomats and diplomacy, we'll have to buy more bullets. It's a lonely crowd. The prime beneficiary of the US abdication is China. Xi Jinping is spreading Chinese influence all over. A recent New Yorker piece on this by Evan Osnos should be required reading in the White House.

America still enjoys huge advantages over China and most places. Our culture, our artists and athletes are the most recognized and often revered in the world.

Even here Trump complicates. He's the first president to stiff the Kennedy Center honors for America's finest artists. The two most celebrated US athletes around the globe are basketball stars LeBron James and Stephen Curry, who both engaged in hostile exchanges with the president.

Joe Nye, by nature an optimist, believes that America's advantages will continue to resonate and that the push-back against Trump from civil society sends a message. "Trump has done enormous damage," he says, "but there will be life after Trump. Soft power will recover." I hope he's right.


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