In Free Fall: America’s Soft Power in Trump Era

The ban on Muslim refugees. The directive to build a huge wall along the U.S.-Mexico border. The dismantling of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP)

Image Courtesy of Petrusbarbygere, © 2005.

Since taking the presidency on January 20th, Trump has signed executive orders that have done more harm than good in the short period of time that they’ve been enacted. These newly signed orders have not only enraged American citizens but have also enraged and shocked the international community—hurting perceptions of the U.S. around the world.

Mexicans, for example, recently pressured President Enrique Peña Nieto to cancel his upcoming trip to Washington to meet with Mr. Trump. They did so not only because they think the wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is an idiotic idea, but because they believe that had Peña Nieto met with Trump, then he would have further bullied and stomped all over Mexico, further sending the country into a downward spiral. The last thing they want is for their president to cave into Trump after what he has said and done to the Mexican people. Currently, perceptions of the U.S. in Mexico are at an all-time low—just ask the piñata sellers.

Similarly, Muslims across the world are also frustrated and upset with Trump. His ban on immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries and Syrian refugees is sending the wrong message to people across the Arab world—that non-Christians aren’t welcome to the U.S. By further alienating Muslims, Trump is playing into the narrative of extremist groups like ISIS that the U.S. is waging a war against all Muslims. This in turn could result in more people joining the terrorist group to help wage a war against America and its allies.

The recent ban has also sparked the ire of British citizens. Over a million (and counting) have signed a petition asking Prime Minister Theresa May to cancel Mr. Trump’s upcoming visit to the United Kingdom. The British government, however, has been reluctant to comment on the ban.  For now, that’s a good thing. The last thing the U.S. needs is losing its special friend and ally.

As part of his “America First” strategy, Trump is signing orders that are supposed to “make America great again.” However, he’s weakening the U.S. presence in the world. By disengaging from the world and loosening relations with its closest allies, Trump is signaling that the U.S. needs no one and that he alone can fix its problems. This, of course, is dangerous. When a major superpower isolates itself from the world, it in turn looses its standing as the global leader. Is that really what this new administration wants? Do we really want to lose allies and cozy up to tyrants like Russia’s Putin? With this kind of isolationist mentality, both are national security and economic interests are at risk. At this pace, our ranking as most loved country will drop dead bottom. Remember 2003 and the Iraq War?

When President Obama first took office in 2009, America’s image abroad was pretty dismal.  However, over the past eight years, President Obama did a lot to repair American perceptions abroad through a more pragmatic and amicable foreign policy that focused more on soft power then that of the previous administration. Soft power—a term coined by Harvard professor Joseph Nye—is a country’s ability to persuade foreign audiences through diplomatic, economic, and cultural means. In other words, it’s a way to influence the views of foreign publics through non-coercion. From the renewal of friendly relations with Cuba to the signing of the Paris Climate Agreement to the TPP and the Iran Deal, it was clear that soft power was at the core of the Obama administration’s foreign policy. It is no wonder the U.S. took the first spot in Portland’s 2016 Soft Power 30 report—a global ranking of soft power around the world. In 2015, the U.K. took the top spot, and the U.S. was ranked third. Might Brexit have caused the U.K. to drop? Perhaps.

It’s hard to guess how far the U.S. will drop in rankings on the Soft Power 30 report this year, but I have no doubt it will. However, what is more relevant is that the U.S. can’t afford to have the international community against it because without them, our national interests are at stake. The world is watching Trump’s every move, and with every mishap and misstep, they’ll be quick to judge America as a whole. In this globalized, connected world the U.S. can’t afford to lose its influence in the world.


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