For decades, the United States has sustained its status as the global superpower by combining the promotion of democratic values and the strength of American culture around the world with its military might. Those dual paths of influence are known as soft power (persuasion using cultural influence) and hard power (coercion typically using military force).
But President Trump’s bombastic rhetoric and the “America First” agenda is eroding U.S.’ soft power, experts say, and, in turn, is damaging the interests of the very Americans Trump says he wants to help.
Trump’s supporters counter that his unconventional methods do not represent an abandonment of diplomacy. Rather, they argue a stronger economy and Trump’s muscular approach to foreign affairs has given the U.S. more bargaining power.
Nevertheless, the U.S. slipped this year from third to fourth place in the Soft Power 30, an index created by the political consultancy firm Portland that uses international polling and other metrics to rank countries according to their global influence. The United Kingdom, France and Germany ranked the highest.
The Soft Power 30 cited the U.S. withdrawal from three major agreements — the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Agreement and the Iran nuclear deal — as the reason for the slide in ranking.
“These shifts in policy create an inconsistent and unpredictable U.S. foreign policy that gives America the paradoxical look of a great power in retreat, as well as a bully looking to extort as much as possible from as many possible,” the report said.
How soft power came about
The term soft power came out of the Cold War, as policymakers searched for a theory to explain why America came out on top in its decades-long struggle with Russia.
Joseph Nye, now a Harvard University professor, first coined the term in his book, “Bound To Lead,” published in 1990.
The idea was that “America’s cultural attraction, its democratic values, its reputation as a generally admirable—if nonetheless flawed—society were powerful,” said Hal Brands, a historian and professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.
“That gave us advantages that the Soviet state could never match,” he said.
Think about the underground popularity of Levi jeans in Russia and the freedom they symbolized during the Cold War. Or Presidents Jimmy Carter and later Ronald Reagan’s emphasis on human rights and open societies that contrasted to the censorship Russia imposed on its own citizens.
Of course, the use of soft power goes back even further. Foreign policy experts often point to the United States’ Marshall Plan, which gave European nations more than $100 billion, in today’s dollars, to rebuild after World War II, as one of the first examples of soft power. The foreign aid strengthened the nation’s allies, solidified American values in the world, and staved off the spread of communism.
But with 9/11, something shifted.
“We have had a crisis of soft power, and we haven’t quite figured out how to solve it,” said Danielle Pletka, a senior vice president of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.
The Bush administration began its “War on Terror” with a shows of military force, with the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. It then added elements of soft power. Recall the battle for “hearts and minds” in the two countries.
When President Barack Obama took office, he balked at what he saw as the Bush administration’s unilateralism. He considered the U.S. involvement in Iraq a foreign policy blunder that eroded U.S. credibility, and, in turn, its soft power. In response, Obama made it his mission to retell America’s story.
That effort was perceived in starkly different terms by Americans on both sides of the political spectrum. Democrats saw it as a resounding success that restored global trust in the U.S.
Republicans called it an “apology tour,” and argued that Obama further diminished U.S. soft power by soft-pedaling advocacy for democracy.
A shift in soft power
Since Trump took office, he has shifted the United States’ soft power strategy again, at least on the surface.
Trump’s supporters admit he can be unpredictable in any given foreign policy situation — he sometimes appears to shift his approach from one day to the next — but his broader foreign policy strategy is more consistent. Its key component is an economic-focused view of the world where countries are competing against each other for a piece of the global pie.
The president’s “America First” agenda puts American interests at the fore, even at the expense of maintaining relationships with U.S. allies, and, some critics argue, at the expense of the nation’s soft power.
Trump’s hardline stance on immigration and unwillingness to call out white nationalists, for example, plays well with elements of his political base at home. But it hurts the country’s ability to claim the moral high ground on the world stage, Brands said.
To achieve his campaign promise of bringing back American jobs and boosting the U.S. economy, Trump has also decried trade deficits and levied steep tariffs on goods coming into the country, especially from China.
His trademark brashness goes beyond economics, playing hardball with other nations when it comes to everything from nuclear development to financial contributions to NATO. He has publicly criticized the leaders of U.S. allies on multiple occasions, and once reportedly called Haiti and African nations “sh*thole countries” at a White House meeting.
In January, reports surfaced that Trump imitated the prime minister of India’s accent. A video of Trump imitating Prime Minister Narendra Modi without an accent in an address to U.S. governors has since gone viral in India. Shortly after taking office, Trump reportedly cut a phone call with Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull short after bragging about his election victory and telling Turnbull their conversation was the “worst call by far” that he had had with world leaders that day.
Incidents like those have left Trump’s counterparts with two options: shrugging off the insults, or deciding they can’t work with Trump, and would rather instead partner more closely with U.S. rivals like China.
Those insults could do lasting damage, according to Harvard professor Joseph Nye.
“Trump has destroyed the ability to have a working relationship because of childish behavior,” Nye said.
Earlier in his presidency, Trump put a federal hiring freeze in place that included the State Department, as part of his effort to slash budgets and reduce the federal civilian workforce.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo lifted the freeze in May after taking the helm from Rex Tillerson. But as of September, there were still 197 key positions unfilled at the agency, based on an analysis from the Partnership for Public Service and the Washington Post.
Trump has also repeatedly created confusion on the world stage when he has directly contradicted others in his administration.
Last year, Trump tweeted that Tillerson was “wasting his time” as secretary of state trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man,” the president’s nickname for North Korea leader Kim Jong Un.
More recently, Pompeo listed several conditions for meeting with Iran, hours after Trump said there would be no preconditions.
‘Real power is… fear’
Rather than exerting the United States’ power in the world, former diplomats say they are concerned Trump is overly concerned with his own reputation.
The title of Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear,” is based on something Trump told the Washington Post editor and journalist in 2016.
“Real power is, I don’t even want to use the word, fear,” Trump said.
That line of thinking is a dramatic break from how past presidents have viewed America’s role in the world.
“More than anything else in the past, we derived power from our values and our integrity,” said Nancy McEldowney, who served as a career diplomat for more than 30 years in six different countries across multiple presidential administrations.
“It was powerful when people looked at what America stood for, the fact that America’s word was its bond and that people could count on us not just to do what we said but to do the right thing,” said McEldowney, who resigned in June 2017 and is now the director of the Master of Science in Foreign Service program at Georgetown University.
Trump has now lost the trust of world leaders and become a “net exporter of instability,” she added.
Trump “is so fearful of being ridiculed. He constantly talks about the fact that we were the laughing stock,” McEldowney continued. “He doesn’t understand that the world is laughing at him now.”
Former Secretary of State John Kerry told the NewsHour’s Judy Woodruff earlier this month that Trump’s fear and his unfamiliarity with the world can lead to other problems.
“There are certain people who are readily and happily taking advantage of this president,” Kerry said. “And you have seen that, I think, with what China is doing right now in certain places. You see that with President Putin in so many ways.”
Other foreign policy watchers said the focus should be on the big picture instead of individual instances where Trump might have ruffled some feathers.
“Trump does see himself as an unconventional statesmen, and he makes no apologies for that,” said James Carafano, a vice president at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Trump backers point to the summit in Singapore between the president and Kim Jong Un as an example of an effective use of soft power. Obama did not go so far as to meet with Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, who was in power at the time, although he did say he would meet with foreign leaders without preconditions and was criticized for it.
Kerry said he supported Trump’s efforts to reach out to Kim Jong Un but did not support “diplomacy that has not been thought through sufficiently.”
The diplomatic effort in North Korea included Trump’s own unique take on U.S. soft power. Trump’s team presented Kim with a Hollywood blockbuster trailer-style video that mapped out a possible future for North Korea, filled with U.S. cultural references like professional basketball games, high-tech manufacturing, and and large-scale public works construction projects.
After the Singapore summit, Trump said North Korea had agreed to denuclearization, even though no formal agreement was made.
National Security Adviser John Bolton told PBS NewsHour last month that North Korea has not taken effective steps to denuclearize. But in a joint statement with South Korea on Wednesday, North Korea announced it was prepared to dismantle a main nuclear complex if the U.S. took corresponding measures.
Pletka, with the American Enterprise Institute, said once you get past the rhetoric, Trump administration officials are, for the most part, acting in line with their predecessors.
“One can, as many on the left and many on the right do as well, focus on the things that Donald Trump says, but most of those things don’t translate into policy,” Pletka said. “I think governments recognize that there is a disconnect between the rhetoric and the policies, and [they] act accordingly.”
Carafano countered that even when Trump is criticizing his allies, like he did at the NATO summit in July, he is exerting soft power.
“Soft power is not all pleasurable,” he said.
Does a strong economy create soft power?
A nation’s economic might does not fall neatly in any one category. As Nye wrote in Foreign Policy, “You can coerce countries with sanctions or woo them with wealth.”
Either way, the U.S. still has the world’s largest economy — something that cannot be ignored.
Since Trump took office, the unemployment rate has fallen below 4 percent, stocks have continued to climb, and blue-collar jobs are growing more quickly than they have in 30 years. Gross domestic product ticked up to 2.3 percent in 2017 after dropping to a paltry 1.5 percent in 2016.
Economists debate how much Trump’s policies have influenced the economy, but the president regularly takes credit for the gains. At a recent White House press briefing, Kevin Hassett, the chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, argued that the Obama administration should not get all the credit for the economic growth seen in recent months.
“I can promise you that economic historians will 100 percent accept the fact that there was an inflection at the election of Donald Trump,” Hassett said.
Carafano described the White House strategy as “peace through strength,” and said having a strong economic base is a key component of the administration’s foreign policy.
Administration officials say “let’s fix the economy. Let’s have strong defense. Then, how do we layer the soft power over those to make them the most effective?” Carafano said.
The question is whether the president’s tariffs and broader trade policies will hurt economic interests at home and abroad.
“Establishing sales relationships where a farmer in the United States can grow soybeans and sell them to China, these take years to set up, years to grow, and they can be destroyed overnight,” McEldowney said.
Other sources of soft power
The debate over soft power won’t end anytime soon. But many foreign policy experts seem to agree on at least one thing: the president does not solely determine how much soft power the U.S. has or how the country uses it.
“American soft power is generated not just by the government,” Nye said. “It’s also generated by the nature of our society.”
Polling from the Soft Power 30 index did show a substantial drop in favorability toward the United States after Trump came into office.
But universities, Hollywood and nonprofit organizations also affect how people abroad view the United States, and public opinion can have a large influence on how their leaders deal or don’t deal with the U.S.
Plus, foreign policy experts emphasize, the United States’ reputation has been built over centuries and is not determined by any one administration.
“I believe there are large parts of the world that crave American leadership, that want the responsible and benign exercise of American power to effect good in the world,” McEldowney said.