The downsides of United States 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 US 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.
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 US 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 US 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 Soviet Union. Similarly, America’s democratic ideals have long allowed it to appeal to populations around the world, and the attractiveness of US 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 US 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 US policy.
Based on his record so far, however, Trump appears to have little understanding of the benefits that 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 US soft power in three particular ways.
First, he has sought crippling budget cuts for the institutions that the US 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 per cent for the State Department and the US. Agency for International Development, and therefore entailed drastic reductions in programmes focusing on global public health, food security, women’s rights, and myriad other issues.
Second, the US president has 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 US must behave more selfishly in the world.
Third, Trump has weakened American soft power through his own behaviour. 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.
Trump’s own Defence Secretary, James Mattis, recently remarked, the US 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 will it take American soft power to recover once he departs.
The good news is that US soft power has traditionally been quite resilient — it has survived globally unpopular presidents before. The reason for this, as Harvard scholar Joseph Nye points out, is that over the long term, US soft power derives less from the image of any individual than from the broader attractiveness of American society, culture and political values. The bad news, however, is that Trump can nonetheless do damage that will not be so easy to repair.
Even if Trump does not succeed in making the US 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 judgement and the character of the nation that has long claimed to be the “last, best hope of mankind”.
Most of the countries the US has traditionally worked with will be eager for their relationships with the superpower to get back to normal.
Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Henry A. Kissinger Center for Global Affairs at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His latest book is American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump.