The State of American Soft Power Under Trump’s Leadership


By Emma Steenbjerg Raun, a 2nd year International Relations student at King’s College London, currently studying abroad at the University of California Irvine, with a special interest in American politics and foreign Policy.

When President Trump delivered his inaugural address in January 2017, we saw the first step toward an America increasingly isolated from the international community as Trump touted the forceful message of “America First” while relaying a nationalist vision for the future of the country. Trump wasted no time fulfilling his promise to the American people when he, a mere three days into his presidency, signed an executive order withdrawing the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade deal negotiated between the U.S. and 11 other countries bordering the Pacific under the Obama administration but never ratified by the Republican controlled Congress[1]. Since then, Trump’s curtailing of international trade has continued with protectionist measures, starting with tariffs on aluminum and steel imports earlier this year, and the axing of existing trade deals. Moreover, his agenda has been largely dominated by nationalist policies and unilateralism, contributing to the alienation of America from key allies. Trump has continuously made good on his almost two-year-old promise of putting America first, leaving the international community without its principal leader. This has brought the discussion of the distribution and use of power to the forefront of American politics – is Trump in the midst of making the U.S. and its values far less attractive and thereby effectively undermining American soft power? Research shows that this is indeed the case thus raising the question of how much harm Trump has caused to U.S. soft power – has he obliterated it beyond repair or can America return to the values that has made the country attractive globally over the past decades?

What is Soft Power?

The reference to a country’s soft power was first made by Joseph Nye in 1990, in the wake of the Cold War, as a challenge to the conventional view that American power was declining. While hard power, particularly military power, had dominated large parts of the 20th century, especially in the latter half during World War II and the Cold War standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union, ideas of power changed as the century came to an end. While some scholars at this time believed that America was poised to be passed by other powers in both military and economic strength, Nye argued that something was missing from the accounts of a decline in American power – “the ability to affect others by attraction and persuasion rather than just coercion and payment.”[2] He called this soft power, and he posited that the United States, as a democratic, liberal powerhouse, would be able to use its cultural and ideological appeal, elements of soft power, to cement its leadership position on the world stage at the end of the Cold War. In the following decades, it became clear that Nye’s predictions had been accurate; the number of liberal democracies around the world grew under the influence of America and the country spearheaded several international institutions, such as the IMF and the WTO, meant to facilitate this “new liberal world order”. This came about both as a result of the positive perception of American democratic ideals, but also because of humanitarian assistance and economic initiatives such as the Marshall Plan which allocated aid to help Western European countries rebuild after the destruction incurred during World War II. This created vital international goodwill that came to benefit America in the pursuing decades and as Nye had argued in 1990, we saw a consequential shift away from sole focus on hard power toward a combination that included an emphasis on soft power with America as the leading force.

Changes in Global Perception of U.S. Leadership


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Despite the early stages of Trump’s presidency, we already see a clear picture of a global community increasingly dissatisfied with American policies under the new leadership. The Gallup poll above shows global approval as well as disapproval of U.S. leadership over the past 10 years. In the Obama years (2009-2016), approval ratings were steadily above 40 percent with some 21-28 percent disapproving of his leadership. However, a year into Trump’s presidency, we see a flip in the two numbers with only 30 percent approving of the leadership under the new president while 43 percent disapprove[1]. Even President Bush, whose foreign policy decisions, especially the 2003 invasion of Iraq, became unpopular in many countries, had higher approval ratings as well as lower disapproval ratings in his last year in office (2008) than Trump did in his first year (2017). What’s even more glaring is the fact that, according to Gallup, a disapproval of 43 percent is a record for any major world power in the last decade and that means the U.S. now has a higher disapproval rating than Germany (25 percent), China (30 percent) and Russia (36 percent)[2]. Moreover, during Trump’s first year in office, countries where the majority disapprove of U.S. leadership increased from 15 in 2016 to a record 53 in 2017, and among the 15 countries with the highest disapproval ratings the vast majority were Western nations and close allies proving that Trump has especially alienated long-time American allies.[3]


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A 2017 survey from Pew Research paints a similar picture of low global confidence in Trump, particularly among key allies in Europe and Asia, and attributes it to both Trump’s character (respondents overwhelmingly chose the characteristics arrogant, intolerant and dangerous when asked to describe him) and his policy decisions. As can be seen in the above image, some of Trump’s most unpopular policies include the withdrawal of U.S. support for international climate agreements (the Paris Climate Accord) and major trade agreements as well as the promise to build a wall on the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The Pew survey also concludes that while respondents generally hold a favorable view of Americans as a people and American culture (for example music, television and film), they simultaneously view the spread of American values and customs internationally as a negative thing.[1]

The above research strongly suggest that Trump is in the midst of undermining U.S. soft power through both his behavior and rhetoric as well as his policy decisions. The record-setting, global disapproval of his leadership would make it increasingly difficult for him to influence foreign affairs through non-military and non-economic means. Likewise, the survey on the global view of American soft power indicates that while the positive image of American culture is still intact, American values and customs are becoming increasingly unpopular as Trump enforces policies, both foreign and domestic, and employs rhetoric that fail to live up to what global citizens view as the standard of American values. Taken together, these factors are crucial in diminishing the ability of the U.S. to influence the international agenda. With the current administration’s rhetoric and policy decisions devaluing the liberal world order that America has espoused for decades, the country and its values have become less attractive and Trump has taken the country closer to the point of no return.

Can American Soft Power Resurge?

Under Trump’s leadership, we have seen a new disregard for foreign allies and the international community in general. As Joseph Nye put it in an article earlier this year, “[f]or promoters of “America First,” what the rest of the world thinks ranks second.”[2] Historically, we have seen how unpopular U.S. policies can negatively affect the attractiveness of America; that was for example the case with the Vietnam War in the 1970s and the invasion of Iraq in 2003, both of which caused outrage and fueled negative views of America and American values. Less than two years into his presidency, Trump has already implemented a number of policies that caused both his popularity, and by extension the popularity of the country as a whole, to plummet. This is especially due to Trump’s insistence on withdrawing the U.S. from many of the most important international agreements such as the TPP, the Paris Climate Accord and the Iran nuclear deal (as well as the subsequent imposition of economic sanctions that this deal had previously lifted). Moreover, Trump remains critical about international institutions such as the WTO, the G7 and NATO and has continuously threatened to pull the U.S., and their funding, from these organizations.

That Trump favors military might over diplomacy also becomes clear when looking at his administration’s budget proposals. Both the State Department and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) are facing budget cuts in the 2019 while funding for defense is expected to increase substantially.[3] Trump is essentially defending his vision of “America First”, as promulgated in his inaugural address, upholding the idea that America should concern itself only with its own self-interest thereby deriding the country of its decades-long role as chief promoter of democracy and human rights. While diplomacy and soft power don’t work as forces of their own, they become crucial tools when combined with hard power strengths for facilitating cooperation with allies and enhancing the overall impact of U.S. policies. But as his dubious relationship with democracy shows, Trump remains unconcerned with soft power instead opting to assert hard power through economic sanctions and military might. Pundits argue that Trump lacks perspective on the usefulness of soft power even contending that his move away from international order is emboldening rival powers such as Russia and China who prosper in a global environment with fewer international constraints and rules.[4]

In sum, President Trump has been on a rampage to detach America from the international community, favoring unilateralism over multilateralism, since he took office in January 2017. Global approval numbers of U.S. leadership plummeted in the same period and American values came to be viewed in a more negative light as Trump continuously enforced policies that were unpopular among other global powers. If Trump doesn’t change course, he is risking further alienating American allies and emboldening competitors as U.S. soft power deteriorates, making America less attractive as a global leader and as an ally. And changing course seems unlikely for a Trump administration that has been dedicated to “America First” since the beginning. The preliminary conclusion therefore seems to be that Trump will continue his unilateral approach to foreign policy thereby continuing to diminish soft power and the ability to persuade and influence other countries. Therefore, we can’t except to see a resurgence of global approval of the U.S. as long as the country is under Trump’s leadership. However, American soft power has traditionally proved to be resilient and has survived unpopular presidents in the past, in part due to the fact that the popularity of American culture persists despite an unfavorable political climate. But considering the kind of havoc Trump has already wrecked on the attractiveness of America and American values less than two years into his presidency, it will likely be a long time before we see the country regain its soft power influence.












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