Opinion|No, President Trump: You’ve Weakened America’s Soft Power

Armed forces aren’t the only power America projects. Its values stir admiration around the globe. But they’re taking a beating in the White House.

Professor Nye coined the term “soft power” in 1989.

Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

President Trump claims he “made America great again.” The facts show just the opposite. The United States has lost credibility since 2017. The president’s looseness with the truth has debased the currency of trust that is needed in a crisis, and his continual disdain for our allies means we have fewer friends.

There is clear evidence that Mr. Trump’s presidency has eroded America’s soft power — the power to attract rather than command. According to a new Pew poll, only 29 percent of people surveyed in 33 countries trust Trump. He ranks as low as President Xi Jinping of China. A year ago, Gallup polled 134 countries and similarly found that only 30 percent of the people held a favorable view of the United States under Mr. Trump’s leadership. That was a drop of almost 20 points since Barack Obama’s presidency. And an annual British index, the Soft Power 30, showed America slipping from first place in 2016 to fifth place in 2019.

Our power comes not only from our military and economic might. Most previous presidents have understood that power also comes from being able to attract others. If we can get you to want what we want, then we do not have to force others to do what we want. If the United States represents values that others want to follow, we can economize on sticks and carrots. Added to hard power, the soft power of attraction is what the military calls a force multiplier. And that makes our values a source of American power.

Indeed, our absence of government cultural policies like those China promotes can itself be a source of attraction. Hollywood movies that showcase independent women and a free society in action can attract people in countries that lack those opportunities. So, too, does the charitable work of American foundations and the benefits of freedom of inquiry at American universities. On the other hand, when our policies appear hypocritical, arrogant and indifferent to others’ views, the government can undermine our nation’s soft power. When Donald Trump interprets “America First” in a narrow way, he makes everyone else feel second class.

Soft power co-opts people rather than coerces them. At the personal level, wise parents know that their power will be greater and will last longer if they exemplify sound ethical values for their children, rather than relying only on spankings, allowances or taking away the car keys. America gains soft power from our values (when we live up to them), and our policies (when they are seen as legitimate because they are framed with some humility and awareness of others’ interests). How our government behaves at home (for example, protecting a free press), in international institutions (consulting others and multilateralism) and in foreign policy (promoting development and human rights) affects others by the influence of our example. In all of these areas, Mr. Trump has reversed attractive American policies and made America weaker rather than greater.

Defenders of the administration reply that moral issues and soft power do not matter in international relations. Mr. Trump’s acting chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, proclaimed a “hard-power budget” as he slashed funds for the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development by 30 percent. Fortunately, America is more than its government. Unlike our hard-power assets, many soft-power resources are generated by our civil society.

Skeptics argue that the decline of American soft power does not matter much because countries cooperate out of self-interest. But that argument misses a crucial point: Cooperation is a matter of degree, and the degree is affected by attraction or repulsion. The status of our soft power also affects nonstate actors — for example, by aiding or impeding recruitment by terrorist organizations such as the Islamic State movement. In an information age, success depends not only on whose army wins, but also on whose story wins.

The open values of our democratic society are among the greatest sources of America’s soft power. Even when mistaken government policies reduce our attractiveness, the ability of America to criticize itself and correct its mistakes makes us attractive to others at a deeper level. When protesters around the world were marching against our government’s policies during the Vietnam War, they often sang “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of our civil rights movement, rather than the Communist “Internationale.”

That should give us hope for the current moment. Given past experience, there is reason to believe that the United States can still recover its soft power after the Trump presidency.

Joseph S. Nye Jr. is a professor at Harvard and the author, most recently, of “Do Morals Matter? Presidents and Foreign Policy from FDR to Trump.”

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