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Soft power is more important than ever, and the United States is hemorrhaging it

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's recent comment about Canadians watching what's happening in the US with "horror and consternation" should be a big wake up call.

Analysis | Washington Politics

The COVID-19 pandemic has appropriately stimulated some rethinking about threats, power, and national security. The public health crisis has demonstrated that many Americans can suffer and die from a threat that has little or nothing to do with the sorts of hard power that traditionally figure into discussions of national security. The virus is the most transnational of threats — knowing no territorial boundaries and unconquerable by any nation acting alone. Military power is useless against it.

Even the economic power of developed countries, although it offers some advantages in dealing with the pandemic, also entails vulnerabilities. Features of advanced economic status such as international air travel have hastened exposure to the virus. COVID-19 has knocked advanced economies, including that of the United States, into recession.

Probably the denizens of the world who are least vulnerable to the virus are subsistence farmers in backward, faraway places.

A related and more general point concerns the relative importance of hard and soft power in advancing U.S. interests and providing for the security and well-being of the American people. Hard power, including military power, has less to do with those objectives than often supposed. The well-being of Americans is threatened less by any hostile military force than it is today by a highly infectious virus and in the years to come by a changing global climate.

Soft power, by contrast, is still at least as relevant as ever. Soft power, as Joseph Nye explored the concept years ago, refers to getting people to want to do what we want them to do rather than forcing them to do it. Soft power has always had advantages of cost and effectiveness. It is cheaper and easier, with less collateral damage, to achieve our objectives when others willingly cooperate than when we have to spend resources and effort on coercion.

The nature of today’s most dangerous threats puts a premium on willing cooperation over coercion. Countering a worldwide viral pandemic is a prime illustration.

Consider also today’s competition between the United States and China, which some liken to the earlier U.S.-Soviet Cold War. Hard power is part of it, especially as it involves a specific tactical situation such as naval forces in the South China Sea. But unlike the Cold War, a nuclear arms race is not part of it — despite what the Trump administration’s handling of nuclear arms control might lead one to believe — with China having far fewer nuclear weapons than either Russia or the United States.

In the wake of China’s explosive economic growth and emergence in the top rank of world powers, any competitive advantage for the United States lies in the soft power area. That advantage would involve the attraction of being a liberal democracy, which China conspicuously is not. The power of that attraction can be seen in the determined resistance of demonstrators in Hong Kong, for whom the economic accomplishment of mainland China is not enough. But the United States has been losing such an advantage rapidly, and Chinese leaders know it.

The plummeting U.S. image 

The loss is reflected in polls of foreign public opinion, which showed a precipitous drop in confidence in the U.S. president with the transition from Barack Obama to Donald Trump. That drop has carried with it a drop in overall approval and increased disapproval of the United States. This pattern has persisted over the first three years of Trump’s presidency.

The loss in U.S. soft power is partly a matter of what the United States does to other countries. That a dominant feature of Trump’s foreign policy has been the reneging on, or withdrawal from, international agreements to which the United States had been a party has obviously been a major factor in the loss of confidence in the United States, and in the loss of foreign willingness to reach new agreements with the United States.

The current administration has extended the damage of another pattern, which is the excessive use of economic sanctions in an effort to impose its will on other states. The special role of the U.S. dollar in international economics and commerce has been a major part of U.S. soft power — soft because people have wanted to use the U.S. dollar, not because they have been coerced into doing so. But Washington’s indiscriminate use of sanctions has led foreign states and businesses to look for alternatives to the dollar as a reserve currency and medium of exchange.

The loss in U.S. soft power also is a matter of what the United States is, and whether foreigners would like to emulate it. This dimension of foreign perceptions of the United States has two main elements, one of which is competence or the lack of it. The inept handling of the COVID-19 crisis has severely damaged the image of the United States in this regard, an image that already had become badly tarnished by deficiencies in maintaining a sound physical and social infrastructure.

Foreigners see not only deficient public health and infrastructure, but also a defective political system that has led to those outcomes. They see the problems as going well beyond Donald Trump, especially given the way in which one of the two major political parties, in the words of conservative columnist George Will, practices “Vichyite collaboration” with Trump, with “senators who still gambol around his ankles with a canine hunger for petting.”

Departure from values

Besides competence there is the matter of values, and whether the United States is living up to its own declared liberal democratic values — the same sort of values that have motivated those Hong Kong protestors. Here foreigners see in the United States an imperfect democracy becoming ever more imperfect, with such features as an electoral system that in two of the last five presidential elections has awarded the office to the loser of the popular vote. They see ever more aggressive use of voter suppression laws and extreme gerrymandering as means to keep a minority element in power. And now there is a Trump White House that attacks a free press, is undermining efforts to enable citizens to vote safely amid a pandemic, and even suggesting the November election might not be held at all.

On top of this has been the administration’s reliance on, and advocacy of, force to suppress popular demonstrations focused on the issue of police abuse of minorities. Foreign regimes that have themselves been subjects of criticism for brutality and infringement of political and civil rights are having a field day with this development. The Chinese regime, hard on the anniversary of a brutal suppression of demonstrators in Tiananmen Square, has been delighted to call attention to what happened to demonstrators in Lafayette Square. Beijing has been working both sides of this propaganda opportunity, using it simultaneously to point out brutality by U.S. authorities and to argue that its own use of brutality is as much of a necessary law and order measure as what Trump is talking about.

The Iranian regime has joined in the fun. A Twitter account attached to Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei says, “If you're dark-skinned walking in the US, you can't be sure you'll be alive in the next few minutes.” Foreign Minister Javad Zarif contributed a Mike Pompeo comment about demonstrations in Iran that was edited to refer to demonstrations in America.

Images that have emerged from the middle of Washington, DC invite such foreign exploitation. The multiplication of barricades in an expanding perimeter around the White House expanded so far that the purpose clearly went beyond physical protection of the residence and had at least as much to do with keeping popular protests out of eyesight and earshot. Washington Post reporters described the scene as one that “resembles the monarchical palaces or authoritarian compounds of regimes in faraway lands.”

Then there is the use of armed security personnel with no identifying insignia, making accountability for their behavior difficult or impossible and rendering them indistinguishable from non-official thugs. This practice brings to mind Russia’s use of “little green men” in unmarked uniforms to seize Crimea, while also recalling the secret police in many authoritarian countries.

The United States still has enough power, of course, to shape many words or actions of foreign governments. But the loss of admiration, trust, and confidence is not far below the surface. Here the most representative image may be that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, when asked by a reporter what he thought of the recent events south of the border, was speechless for twenty seconds. He obviously was struggling between the need for honesty and a need not to offend the current rulers of the colossus to the south.

When Trudeau finally spoke, his first words were about the “horror and consternation” with which Canadians were observing events in the United States. Coming from one of the closest friends and allies of the United States, that is not the kind of perception from which soft power is made.

A group of policemen form a line in front of a burning car during the recent protests in Washington DC in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, 5/30/2020. (Photo credit: bgrocker /
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