The plenary room of the European Parliament is seen during a debate on migrations in Strasbourg, France, June 7, 2016. REUTERS/Vincent Kessler Image Credit: REUTERS

Germany would probably have been content with the status quo here in the Old World. The United States and China are by now, economically speaking, significantly superior to Germany. They also play in a different league on the military front.

All of this could be borne with magnanimity, seeing as the Old World has something in abundance that no other region on the planet has to offer, namely its good reputation. Even as the hard numbers, such as gross domestic product, may be trending in the wrong direction, Europe is still a force to be reckoned with in “soft power”.

It is known for its sound educational systems and extremely well-developed democratic structures. The entire European Union (EU) even won the Nobel Peace Prize four years ago. Its cultural and societal norms are its highly regarded calling cards. The entire world still remembers the World Cup that took place in Germany a decade ago, when visitors experienced German hospitality and friendship.

But what now? Now, Europe is in the process of losing its good reputation. Football fans gathering in France these days are showing their ugliest of faces in the Euro 2016 competition. The law enforcement authorities seem to be overtaxed and the world watches in horror as the ugly scenes in Lille and Marseille are broadcast. But it goes far beyond one sporting event, of course. The continent in general seems to be as divided as never before, as the advance of populists on both Left and Right appears to be unstoppable.

Historian Timothy Garton Ash warned of a return of the dark days of the Old World, of a “relapsing into European barbarism”, as he recently told the Financial Times. Proof of the changing winds come in a survey this month by the Pew Research Center, according to which two-thirds of French people hold a negative opinion of the EU. The French, according to Pew, even outdo the British in their EU pessimism, even as the United Kingdom is set to decide today whether or not it will remain a member of the Union.

The Old World is losing its “soft power”, its positive radiance and magnetism, as the support for the so-called “Brexit” becomes the symbol for the fear and rampant populism across the Continent. The Portland think tank’s “Soft Power Index” this year also found signs of Europe’s slide. The US has replaced Britain at the top and Germany has fallen from second to third place. And Canada bumped France down to fifth place.

It was the historian Joseph Nye who developed the “soft power” concept in the early 1990s, showing how nations are able to exert their power beyond their own borders without the use of tanks. Soft power can be accumulated through a positive image, high standards of living and a kind of cultural magnetism. In the face of fierce global competition, a country can attract talented people on the international job market if it seems likable, stable and trustworthy. In Germany, it was particularly important with the country’s historical burden to be able to profit from these factors. Jonathan McClory, author of the Portland study, says that “in addition to its leading role in foreign policy, Germany is mostly admired for its advanced products, its engineering and its economic system”. Moreover, Berlin’s transformation from a divided capital city to a global centre of creativity is something quite remarkable. Still, this year, Germany dropped from second to third-place in the Portland ratings. “The federal government has to get the refugee crisis under control,” McClory notes. “The resulting increase in political support of right-wing groups is damaging Germany’s soft power.”

This year’s leading country is the US, which jumped two places in the soft power ranking, with its leading role in technological innovation, digital development, global cultural goods and its world renowned universities.

No other country draws as many foreign students to its shores and most of the digital platforms and the mainstay of the digital avant-garde are of American origin. In fact, the 10 largest companies registered at the stock market are American, among them are five technological giants — Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.

But the bloody assassination that took place last week in Orlando is just the kind of event that can undermine soft power. And then there is the rise of the likely Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, whose threats to ban all Muslims from entering the US and to build a wall at the Mexican border are harming America’s reputation as an open-minded country.

Back in Europe, says McClory, “the possibility of a Brexit hangs above Britain’s global status like a gigantic question mark”. But if the referendum today to leave the EU fails, it will be proof that the soft power of “brand” Europe is not dead yet.

— Worldcrunch 2016, in partnership with Die Welt/New York Times News Service

Nando Sommerfeldt is an editor at Die Welt and Holger Zschapitz is senior editor at the Economic and Financial desk of the German daily.